The Jews and secularists did not steal Christmas. But it has been stolen.
By Michael Lerner
Some leaders of the Christian Right have decided to make an issue of the secularization of Christmas. Objecting to the move by Macy's and other retailers to wish their shoppers "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons Greetings" instead of the traditional Merry Christmas, they’re accusing secularists in general, and, on some of the right-wing talk shows, Jews in particular, of undermining Christmas.
It's easy to dismiss these Right-wingers as sore winners. They are well on their way to packing the judiciary with judges who may erode the division between church and state, make abortion more difficult or illegal, and support the pro-torture position of the Bush Administration. Doing their best to deflect attention from popular outrage at the war in Iraq, the continuing of torture, and the most recent revelations of genuinely impeachable offenses (this time, the violation of the laws prohibiting domestic wiretaps on people whose sole offence is that they challenge Bush's policies), the Religious Right has managed to generate a controversy over Christmas.
The assault has been led by Bill O'Reilly, the most popular cable newscaster, who told millions of viewers that there was a systematic assault on Christmas by secularists. When challenged last year by a Jewish caller who said he felt uncomfortable being subject to frequent attempts to convert him by Christians at his college, O'Reilly responded: "All right. Well, what I'm tellin' you, is I think you're takin' it too seriously. You have a predominantly Christian nation. You have a federal holiday based on the philosopher Jesus. And you don't wanna hear about it? Come on—if you are really offended, you gotta go to Israel then. I mean because we live in a country founded on Judeo—and that's your guys'—Christian, that's my guys' philosophy. But overwhelmingly, America is Christian. And the holiday is a federal holiday honoring the philosopher Jesus. So, you don't wanna hear about it? Impossible. And that is an affront to the majority. You know, the majority can be insulted, too. And that's what this anti-Christmas thing is all about."
Meanwhile, Richard Viguerie, the master of Right-wing direct mail campaigns, interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air last December, repeated the charge that Christians were the victims of a systematic secularists assault against Christmas. On MSNBC that same week William Donahue of the Catholic League insisted, "Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It's not a secret, OK? They like to see the public square without nativity scenes." This year they are even organizing demonstrations and boycotts of stores that say "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas" and have even critiqued George W. Bush's holiday greeting cards (even though they are heavily doused with a spiritual and religious message).
Liberals and civil libertarians would be making a huge mistake to see this as merely the rantings of a few overt anti- Semites and anti-civil-liberties extremists. They articulate a legitimate concern that many Christians say privately: their children have learned that Christmas is about buying—and the person with the most expensive gifts wins!
There is a beautiful spiritual message underlying Christmas that has universal appeal: the hope that gets reborn in moments of despair, the light that gets re-lit in the darkest moments of the year, is beautifully symbolized by the story of a child born of a teenage homeless mother who had to give birth in a manger because no one would give her shelter, and escaping the cruelty of Roman imperial rule and its local surrogate Herod who already knew that such a child would grow up to challenge the entire imperialist system. To celebrate that vulnerable child as a symbol of hope that eventually the weak would triumph over the rule of the arrogant and powerful is a spiritual celebration with strong analogies to our Jewish Chanukah celebration which also celebrates the victory of the weak over the powerful. And many other spiritual traditions around the world have similar celebrations at this time of year.
The loss of this message, its subversion into a frenetic orgy of consumption, rightly disturbs Christians and other people of faith.
Yet this transformation is not a result of Jewish parents wanting to protect their children from being forced to sing Christmas carols in public school, or secularists sending Seasons Greeting cards. It derives, instead, from the power of the capitalist marketplace, operating through television, movies and marketers, to drum into everyone's mind the notion that the only way to be a decent human being at this time of year is to buy and buy more. Thus the altruistic instinct to give, which could take the form of giving of our time, our skills, and our loving energies to people we care about, gets transformed and subverted into a competitive frenzy of consumption.
Not surprisingly, the Christian Right is unwilling to challenge the capitalist marketplace—because their uncritical support for corporate power is precisely what they had to offer the Right to become part of the conservative coalition. Their loyalty to conservative capitalist economics trumps for them their commitment to serving God. But for those of us who want to prevent a new surge of anti-Semitism and assaults on the first amendment, our most effective path is to acknowledge what is legitimate in the Christians' concern—and lead it into a powerful spiritual critique of the ethos of selfishness and materialism fostered by our economic arrangements. It's time for our liberal and progressive Christian leaders and neighbors to stand up on behalf of Jews and on behalf of their own highest spiritual vision—and challenge the real Christmas thieves!
We in the Network of Spiritual Progressives, an interfaith project of the Tikkun Community, have done what we could—we've organized a series of informational picketing events at major shopping centers, and distributed our message about ethical consumption for the holidays. We particularly emphasized giving gifts of time instead of gifts of things.
We understand that many, many people feel inadequate during the holidays precisely because they don’t have enough money to buy the kinds of gifts that their friends and children are being taught (by the media) to be the sine qua non of "really caring" (for example, diamonds, new automobiles, and other luxuries). So many people will feel disappointed as they stand with the Christmas tree or Chanukah menorah and find that the gifts that they got didn't measure up to marketplace-induced fantasies. Meanwhile, the spiritual message of the holidays gets largely lost. No wonder people feel distraught. Our task is to help them understand that the solution is not blaming secular people, civil libertarians, Jews, gays, or anyone else—but instead to recognize that the emptiness or feeling of loneliness of "lack" has been forced upon them by market values that they need to become aware of and then reject.
This is only one dimension of why we so badly need a Network of Spiritual Progressives. We hope that you'll resolve right now to come to the Spiritual Activism conference of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, May 17-20, in D.C., and register for it at www.spiritualprogressives.org.
Meanwhile, to those who celebrate Christmas: MERRY CHRISTMAS.
To those who celebrate Chanukah: HAPPY CHANUKAH (chag urim samey'ach).
To those who celebrate Kwanza: HAPPY KWANZA.
And to those who just celebrate the season without identifying with any particular tradition: HAPPY HOLIDAYS.
And to all of us: Blessings for a world of peace and justice and love!
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Rabbi Michael Lerner is the editor of Tikkun magazine and chair of The Network of Spiritual Progressives. His next book, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right, will be out in February 2006.
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