It is Christmas Day. For the majority of Americans it is a holiday, for some of them a holy day. For the rest of us – Jews, Moslems, Hindus and others – it is a moment of some ambivalence, a time when we are reminded of our minority status. We are asked to participate in the holiday spirit and are engulfed in its decorations, music and symbols. There is festiveness in the air, but beneath the surface a palpable tension. That is particularly true this year. Over the past few weeks we have witnessed a series of local controversies and heated debates surrounding public school and place holiday observances and programming. Not that we haven't experienced this before – similar discussions took place when I was a child a long time ago. What's different this year is the tone and a new aggressiveness about bringing Christmas – the birth of Jesus Christ – back into a holiday that has been increasingly secularized and thus religiously neutered.
One of the most unattractive aspects of our time, as my elder son keeps reminding me, is that no one wants to take responsibility any more. To be sure, Christmas has lost some of its religious edge because of what the complainers see as political correctness -- not wanting to offend, wanting to be inclusive. But Christmas become secularized many decades before "correctness" even entered our vocabulary. It has long been taken over as a commercial event, the make or break time for retailers whose fiscal year ends in January so that they can book its sales. It is a Christmas focused on unbridled gift buying rather than remembrance of Virgin Birth. The broadest possible inclusion in this frenzy and the resultant holiday neutralization has long been tacitly condoned by people of faith including Churches who in all honesty are driven as much, often more, by economic considerations than by prayer and piety. Christmas' meaning has been pragmatically hijacked by the almighty dollar not by political correctness and that is sad. Restoring the meaning of Christmas would be good for everyone, Christians and non-Christians alike.
But there is something in this year's debate which is not good for all of us. For the first time, I hear an increasing number of people voicing anger about the neutering of Christmas with the argument that this is a "Christian country." To be sure, Christianity remains the dominant religion in America, though other religions have been gaining ground. Only the blind can deny the reality of that dominance, symbolized by a National Christmas Tree and the annual television tour through the decorated people's White House. Even so, I think of ours as a secular democracy, my place as well as yours, yours as well as mine. Christians should be proud of their faith, should feel embraced by all in their right to celebrate and to be discomfited by the replacement of Merry Christmas with Happy Holidays. But not because we live in a Christian country, rather that we live in one which welcomes and protects religion and the religious even as it welcomes secularism and the non-believer.
I have said many times in these blogs that a large number of Americans, including those in high places, see our current geopolitical struggles in religious terms. We aren't fighting terrorism, we're battling Islam. We're not defending our democracy, but in their view our Christian country and Christian way of life. As an American and as a citizen of our small planet, I see that as a prescription for disaster. As a Jew with a historic memory, I find such thinking ominous. When people start using code words like correctness for un-Christian and thus un-American, there is good reason for people of all faiths and beliefs to be concerned. For or against the current foreign policy, let's not forget what we're defending here. Yes, let's not forget that we're defending the right of individuals in a pluralistic society to cherish their traditions and for our Christian fellow citizens to wish each other a Merry Christmas with all of its meaning and pride.