State of Tolerance

To the purist, the Christmases of my childhood would no doubt seem anathema. We didn’t go to midnight Mass, and we didn’t pray. We didn’t have a creche, we didn’t have an Advent calendar, and we didn’t think much about the birth of Christ either. We did, however, sometimes have a small Christmas tree, and Santa Claus did come down the chimney. When I was somewhat older, I even appeared, year in and year out, in the Sidwell Friends School Christmas pageant, marching around the gymnasium holding a candle and singing “Good King Wenceslas” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Masters in This Hall” along with other carols, to which I still know all of the words. Year in and year out, my parents came to watch me. My mother claimed to enjoy this annual event, so much so that she declared she would go on attending it even after all three of her children had graduated. I don’t believe she ever did, but the intention was there.

Because it was a holiday, my relatives would sometimes come to stay. On Christmas Day, we sometimes celebrated their presence with Christmas dinner. One year I gave a Christmas party, with eggnog and mulled wine and Christmas cookies. This ritual went on until finally there were not enough of my high school friends left in Washington to merit continuing. These days, Christmas has another attraction: It is often the one time in the year that everyone in my now bicoastal, bicontinental family seems to have a few days free to meet in Washington.

Odd though it may seem to the very devout of either faith, my Jewish family’s treatment of this most Christian of holidays strikes me now as an entirely appropriate way to mark what is, after all, one of the major religious festivals of the society in which I lived. We had the parties without the religion, celebrated the fun bits, and left the rest out: We didn’t, in short, take it too seriously. No one else that we knew, Christian or Jewish, seemed to mind that we celebrated Christmas this way either. No one seemed to think it very important if Santa Claus arrived at our house or he didn’t. (Of course, my sisters and I did care enough to wait up all night for him to get there.)

Lately, however, I have often wondered how long others will be able to get away with “not taking it seriously.” These days, Christmas is often accompanied by more than just the sound of piped music in shopping centers: No year passes without a fuss about how much official Christmas is permissible.

A couple of years ago, that fuss started when the U.S. Postal Service, which is happy to put Marilyn Monroe and James Dean on stamps, announced that it would no longer feature the traditional Madonna and Child (an image from a religious painting, not from contemporary pop music) on its Christmas stamp, as it had done for 28 years. The Postal Service now denies ill intent: “Some people took it wrongly,” a Postal Service spokesman said over the telephone, somewhat plaintively. “We don’t want to make anybody angry. We don’t like controversies. We hope never to see another one.”

In a newspaper article written at the time, however, a man described as the “top stamp official” at the Postal Service explained himself somewhat differently. “We’re moving away from being denominational to being nondenominational,” he said. Others agreed with him. The Postal Service “ought to concentrate on delivering mail and not on incorporating religious themes into stamps,” opined a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. As is the way with these things, the case attracted the attention of every humorless atheist who ever objected to a prayer being read out at his daughter’s high school graduation ceremony.

It turned out that the Madonna and Child stamps had outsold all others. It turned out that people actually liked the idea of putting a religious symbol on their Christmas cards, they liked being able to go to the post office and buy them, they liked the idea that there was something sacred to be found in an official place. Eventually, the noise grew so loud that President Clinton got involved, lobbying to reinstate the Madonna stamp and thus head off potential resentment of his administration, accusations of political correctness and, presumably, a huge rise in value of all Madonna and Child stamps hoarded by legions of stamp collectors in the past.

Thanks to that, the decision was rescinded, but the discomfort remains. I note for the record that the Postal Service now feels obliged to issue stamps celebrating other wintertime holidays. This year it is the turn of Hanukah. Next year it will be the more recently invented holiday of Kwanzaa. After that, presumably the Hindu holiday Diwali. Who knows what will follow? I worry that the Postal Service will run out of non-Christmas Christmas season holidays rather quickly.

Meanwhile, these sorts of disputes trickle on, one or two every season. One year, a fuss was raised when a headmaster banned a portrait of Santa Claus from the school assembly room; another year, the city government of San Jose, Calif., removed a nativity scene from a public park. Other parts of the city’s Christmas display — reindeer, elves and a gingerbread house — were allowed to remain, but the creche was removed “to avoid offending Jews and other non-Christians.” It isn’t hard to imagine what followed: the protests of the local newspaper, the resignation of the city treasurer, the complaints of the neighborhood association and, invariably, the arrival on the scene of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Such disputes are now so common that the Supreme Court has had to rule on them. According to the highest authority in the land, nativity scenes are legal — but only so long as they are accompanied by “secular” symbols. Thus Jesus, Mary and Joseph join the modern trinity of Santa, Frosty and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

This isn’t just an American problem. Increasingly, such disputes happen in Britain, too, where I now happen to live. In 1993, the city council in Birmingham, England, decided that it wasn’t going to have Christmas lights, as it had done in the past, but rather seasonal lights. Angels would be replaced by snowflakes and Merry Christmas would become Happy Holidays. The staff of the Birmingham Convention Center, which is owned by the city, even sent out Christmas cards that year featuring a full-color portrait of the new Hyatt hotel, taken in midsummer, with no snow, no angels, no Christmas greetings, nothing on it to indicate it was a Christmas card at all.

As Birmingham has one of Britain’s largest immigrant populations — the city has become famous for giving birth to whole new schools of Indian cooking — the council made the decision on the grounds that the city’s many religious minorities would appreciate the change. It was wrong — and one of the first people to take exception to the new policy was Alan Blumenthal, a Jewish member of the same city council.

“They were canceling Christmas,” he says now, with a touch of nostalgia and recalled righteous indignation. “They were going to have a winter festivity instead.” So he led the campaign himself. “We had articles in the paper, people ringing up the phone-in programs, retailers making a fuss about it. There were some terrific cartoons: Santa Claus in the North Pole, crossing out Birmingham because Birmingham had canceled Christmas, that sort of thing.” In the end, Blumenthal’s campaign won: Christmas was reinstated.

Why did he do it? Blumenthal concedes now that Christmas means nothing to him, at least from a religious point of view. As a retailer (his shops sell budget-priced men’s suits), he says Christmas mostly means business, and a day off before the January sales. But as an inhabitant of Birmingham and of Britain, he finds it is something a little bit more than that, too. “I associate it with jolly times, Christmas parties, Christmas pies and things.” Besides, he says simply, “I live in a predominantly Christian country, and I am very happy here.”

I know what he means, because I feel the same way. In Israel, Christians and Muslims learn to respect, more or less, the Jewish custom of closing shops and shutting down public transport on Saturdays. In Islamic societies, it is rightly improper for Western women to wear very short skirts. In Bali, one doesn’t go into Hindu temples unless correctly dressed, and in a largely Christian country — which both America and Britain still are — it seems perfectly reasonable that major Christian festivals be acknowledged, semiofficially, by school pageants and vacations, street decorations and television shows for children, Christmas stamps, Christmas carolers, the queen’s speech or the National Christmas Tree outside the White House. It seems equally reasonable that non-Christians should be able to enjoy the festivities without interpreting them as exclusive or discriminatory or racist or unfair.

I suppose it might be different if we were talking about intolerant societies, or if Christmas were now what Easter used to be a long time ago: an occasion for pogroms and other assaults on Jews. But the modern celebration of Christmas is precisely the opposite. Christmas, especially American Christmas, is the product of several cultural traditions. That the date itself derives from the pagan winter festival is well known; that the Christmas tree is a German tradition is also known. Fewer know that the name Santa Claus itself is a corruption of the Dutch Sinterklaas, or that Kriss Kringle comes from the German Christkindlein, or that Thomas Nast, the Bavarian-born illustrator who invented the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, was the first American to draw this significant figure in the shape we know him now.

Even in Britain, the traditions continue to evolve. These days, British cooking programs teach their viewers how to make Christmas log cakes (“bouche de Noel”) in the French style. On Christmas Eve, Italians and Spaniards draped in cashmere pack the Brompton Oratory, one of central London’s larger Catholic churches, to sing the traditional English carols that they’ve all learned in their own languages. The shops in Golders Green, the heavily Jewish north London neighborhood, now sell kosher Christmas puddings, a revoltingly sweet British confection, to their Orthodox customers. And everyone here is long acquainted with modern American Christmas songs, many of which naturally were written by Jews: Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” for example, or Jule Styne’s “Let It Snow.”

In the two countries I know best — or three, if you count Poland, where my husband comes from — it plays a function in national life, this Christmas celebration. Not only does it shut down schools and offices, force people to take their secretaries out to lunch, and lead to a massive surge in mail and psychiatric consultations, the celebration has become a part of the national self-definition. In the United States, there is an annual moaning about commercialization, and a fond recalling of more innocent Christmases past. In Britain, there is an annual crop of I Hate Christmas articles — one pundit once trumped everyone by publishing his in August — to look forward to. In Poland, the annual carp harvest coincides with Christmas, since Poles eat carp on Christmas Eve. In the past, there was a yearly panic about whether there would be enough carp — special supplies had to be shipped in to prevent an anticommunist riot. Now the papers publish new and better carp recipes. With no disrespect meant to the celebrants of Hanukah or Kwanzaa or Diwali, Christmas now plays a universal, binding role in each one of those three countries that those other holidays could not. Christmas cards are an accepted, interethnic form of discourse; ditto Christmas presents and Christmas trees and Christmas dinner.

Ostensibly, the American arguments over state-sponsored Christmas decorations and nativity scenes in parks have nothing to do with all of that. These are debates about the separation of church and state, or about the feelings of minorities, and therefore the product of modern tolerance. But, in fact, I believe they are evidence of modern intolerance — intolerance for the delicate fabric of custom that holds nations together, intolerance for the melting pot of traditions that created modern American Christmas itself.

I would even go further than that: The removal of the religious side of Christmas from public life is actually a form of disrespect to the culture of the majority. Nontotalitarian states like Britain and America do not force their citizens to obey the will of the majority, to march in May Day parades, to cheer on demand or to gaze at oversized portraits of the Leader; this sort of thing happens only during political conventions, and it is quite voluntary. In fact, nontotalitarian states like Britain and America spend a great deal of time defending the legal rights of minorities; there are provisions for the unjustly accused, tolerance for many religious practices, press freedom and freedom of speech.

This defense of minorities should be a primary concern. Yet majority religion also has a place in public life. It is there anyway — on our coins (“In God We Trust”), in our Declaration of Independence, in the Bibles that we swear upon — and I’m not sure there needs to be much more of it. But Christmas is such an easy concession to make — people find it easy to accept, in the way that they do not all find Christian prayer in schools easy to accept — so why not let it continue?

However powerfully some people feel about it — I am sure that there are Jews who loathed Christmas as children — I don’t believe that it hurts minorities to occasionally acknowledge the presence of mainstream culture, either. They needn’t feel part of it — some never do — but they might as well know what Christmas is. You might as well know what Christianity is, too, if you live in a country that has as many Christians as does the United States. You might as well also know about Jesus, too, because you will probably hear about Him again, and it can’t hurt you to know the story of his birth.

From my own experience, anyway, I can state categorically that it doesn’t hurt Jewish children in Washington to march around a gymnasium singing carols. I don’t think I felt excluded, or discriminated against by this particular ceremony. I don’t recall feeling left out. On the contrary, thanks to my early education in Christmas, I have also managed to enjoy a number of Christmases in foreign countries — in India, in Poland, in Britain — in the company of Christians whose practices varied from those I knew growing up, but not unrecognizably. I can sing the “Hallelujah” Chorus of “The Messiah” if and when required. I know not one but several verses of “Silent Night.” I can hum along, at the very least, with most major Christmas carols, which makes all of that yuletide Muzak much easier to endure.

Better yet, 15 years later, I can still remember the scent of candle wax; the time that the hair of the girl in front of me caught on fire; the long rehearsals in the cold gymnasium; the feeling of relief when it was all over, because that meant vacation had begun. I can also remember the way that the music teacher, Fran Cleaver, would close her eyes and sway when we came to a passage she loved; the way the longish hair of the pianist, Mr. Marlowe, bobbed up and down as he played; the way that somebody’s mother always cried. I believe we found many of these things humorous at the time, but they seem less so to me now: Wherever I am, whatever I am doing, when Christmas happens I can think of them and feel included.