Christmas For Religious Minorities


We have chosen collectively, as a society, to use the year-end holidays to mark the passage of our years.  This means that both memories and emotions seem to pour out of the heavens and clobber us all. None of us has had, to my knowledge, a Thanksgiving that looked anything like the Norman Rockwell painting of everyone sitting at the table being fed by a loving grandmother — a reality that has been soundly parodied.

Despite efforts at legislating “political correctness”, there are plenty of people who are not Christian suffering through Christmas — especially those with children who watch television and assimilate its methods. When I was very young and going to a Jewish religious school, the intensity of the group identity made it easy, even though there were several group activities my parents did not let me participate in. They were mostly the Sabbath-oriented ones, as we drove in cars and turned on lights and did other things the very Orthodox, who ran the place, did not do. It was clear even to a very young psyche, that Chanukah was a warm and light-filled time, with special games and special treats and special songs and special joys.

When I went to public school, it was different.  This was before the times when all religions had to be represented.  The feeling is nowhere better expressed than in a song from that irreverent cartoon show, “South Park” that I love to sing “It’s Hard To Be A Jew At Christmas.” I always get laughs when I perform (especially in my South Park voice), but it comes very close to the way I felt as a child. This is the time when I was maybe 7 or so, the time that children usually start socializing.  It is also the time my parents — at what then seemed to be great effort, time, and expense — drove to a predominantly Jewish area on the other side of Boston and bought a Chanukah light to put in the window.  It was not even a menorah with light bulbs you could screw in.  Rather, it was a picture of a menorah lit from behind.

Of course, a Christmas tree was out, but we didn’t even have a “Chanukah bush” – which is what the Jews call a decorated pine tree.  Occasionally, in the five and ten, I could buy a little ornament, maybe a tiny snowman, after pleading with my parents that he was non-denominational. Of course, I could not have a nice “navinity scene” (as I pronounced it — my rapid growth of vocabulary defied accuracy sometimes).  I remembered seeing amazingly realistic reproductions of a suffering Christ in art museums, so it was clearly high art. But if I wanted to draw one or at least try or get a plastic model of the baby in the manger at a classy place like the Harvard Coop, it was verboten in a profound way other things were not.  After all—I was an extraordinarily well-behaved young girl. My mother of blessed memory always said that I was pretty well behaved as a child, but that my behavior degenerated as I grew up.  If “behavior” means conformity to her wishes, the statement is pretty accurate and can be confirmed by my husband. I remember when my father of blessed memory started teaching junior high, there had been a annual Christmas bulletin board and suddenly this became illegal, impossible. The bulletin board had to be divided into (at least) thirds, so that all religions represented in the student population were represented on the bulletin board.  Christmas was easy and Judaism was a slam dunk, but there were a large number of immigrants from one or more oriental traditions, and Daddy was really glad this was not his responsibility.

I went to Daddy’s school band concert.  There were five equal fifths on that bulletin board, one for Diwali (the Hindu “festival of lights”) and one with a smiling Buddha in the lotus position.

I sailed along in my believing and celebrating in my own way as I progressed down the road of life, until — in Kansas — I actually volunteered to teach some traditional music to children at the synagogue. I should have learned from my experience in France years earlier, that people would react to me in a strange way, since they all have their own traditions and I was not traditional in any of them. In Kansas, there was a different problem, and it is the one in the song. No kids wanted to learn Jewish songs.  They were in public school, and the few hours of Jewish religious and cultural training were no comparison for the seductions of a workshop full of elves, or the reindeer with the red nose who lit the way, or the wonderful cute TV specials. Rabbi told me that it was no big deal, it happened every year, the parents would deal with it, and if it made me feel any better, I could refer people to him.  I don’t know if anyone I referred to him ever saw him. Christmas has since become secularized so much that even if Jewish kids celebrated it, it would mean little. Except for the religious right, of course, who think this country is a Christian theocracy. But anyone who read any American History on their own, looking for a truth, would figure out it is not. I mean — come on, Thomas Jefferson rewrote the Bible as a book of morality without any reference to God. So here I am, and the feeling of being part of a religious minority is my ghost of Christmas past.  I think people have given up on the five part bulletin boards, as free thought proliferates in the number of those who express their true feelings.  I mean, in my career I have had patients who believe in the worship of trees as carrying spirit, and plenty of Wiccans, and more other belief systems than I can name. If any of them have problems exercising their beliefs, it is not too hard to scrape up an ACLU lawyer or someone with some courage and a knowledge of civil rights to step forward and remind the protesters that observing a non-Christian religion – or no religion at all—is NOT unAmerican. The reality still exists. Our first amendment constitutional rights guarantee any citizen the right to belong to or practice any religion desired.

We have always had a problem with public religion intruding on private religion – which exists inside your head.

With the exception of a Unitarian or two, all of our presidents have been Christians and candidates and incumbents spend a lot of time convincing people that they are true believers of the faith.  It has been weird the last couple of years with a fringe element insisting our current president is a Muslim (by which they mean enemy of America).  That has resulted in frequent news releases about how often Pres. Obama goes to church, consults with his religious advisor and attends various rituals.  It almost goes overboard to the extent of “The President Doth Protest Too Much.”

I really have trouble believing that we live in a country where the President puts a premium on being seen inside a Christian church, while some believe he is really Muslim. It bothers me – intellectually more than spiritually – that being a devout Christian is a prerequisite for getting elected.

Until people get to some level of mutual respect — which we may or may not be able to do — we don’t seem to me to have advanced at all, intellectually or morally, beyond the Crusades, which were a while ago.

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