Christmas and Hanukkah coincide this year, bringing them into special focus. While sharing common Winter Solstice roots, they are in fact polar opposites in both intrinsic religious content and heft. Christmas is a major holiday, celebrating the birth of a religion; Hanukkah a minor holiday, remembering but one event in a religion’s past. That they are so closely and inaccurately linked has long been a matter of consternation to those who are affronted by that blurring of history into what is euphemistically described as “seasonal” celebration (which if you haven’t noticed is the Right’s talking point this month). For them, saying that Christmas and Hanukkah clash (rather than coincide) this year might be more appropriate. The idea of clashing is certainly in tune with the era of universal misunderstanding and discord in which we find ourselves. But, in describing what’s happening this year, I would opt for the word “merge”. That fits the kind of celebrations that for many (perhaps the majority) have come to constitute a difference with functionally no distinction at all. To be sure many Churches will be filled to capacity at midnight mass or Christmas morning worship and some Jews will light the candles with special intent, but whatever religious content these holidays may have, it has been largely neutered away in most households. Were it not for the presence of tree or Menorah (which is not always there), a visitor unfamiliar with the holidays’ content would likely discern little difference as young and old eagerly demolish the once carefully constructed wrappings that separate them for their gifts.
The merger of the holidays this year is a mixed religious metaphor. On one hand the different celebratory songs being sung on the very same day remind us of a world so sadly and hopelessly divided. On the other, if we can celebrate together, perhaps others of disparate beliefs can as well. The rare occasions when Christmas and Hanukkah merge probably offers some relief to the ever growing number of interfaith couples who normally feel so conflicted at this time of year, or who may feel somewhat guilty in celebrating one holiday more lavishly than the other. Of course, to which ancestral family they should go on December 25th could turn this seeming calendrical blessing on its head. Well, in the larger scheme of things in this tumultuous year, they‘ll work that minor problem out. That Christmas and Hanukkah come at the same time won’t foreshorten what has become an endless period of seasonal hype which now sneaks up on us right after Halloween. Why wait for Thanksgiving and Black Friday, when you can get a few more shopping days into the calendar?
That commerce has taken Christ out of Christmas is a well worn but long outdated cliché. The secularization of these holidays reflects something much more profound, the ambivalence so very many of us have about our respective faiths, the growing detachment. Of course, suggesting that the way we celebrate these holidays mirrors the considerably diminished role religion plays in our lives goes against the conventional wisdom that mindlessly repeats the unchallenged truisms of both religious resurgence and of America being the most religious nation in the West. I guess those who foster that myth haven’t noticed all those empty pews at weekly services, most likely because they themselves are among the absent. Sure there are many who love the holiday decorations, the sound of carols or songs and, most especially, the gathering of family. But for more people than might admit it themselves, this celebratory participation masks what in reality is nothing more than a most tangential tie to religion. Being a lover of choral works, I look forward annually to the many performances of Handel’s Messiah this time of year. But however moved I may be by his music or by a great performance it is only that; as a Jew I have no relationship whatsoever to the masterwork’s content or message. That’s pretty much how many others including Christians view the holidays themselves.
The most visible religion in our day, the one that plays a central role in domestic and global politics, seems more destructive than constructive. People at its outer edges, which they proclaim to be its center, have taken hold of the megaphone. Aside from a few lonely voices like Jimmy Carter in this latest book, they have met virtual silence from those whom we might expect to respond. Religion, for many Americans, has become the neighborhood bully whether interfering with our health and reproductive choices, questioning the validity of our life partnerships or insinuating its ideology into our children’s education with the misinformation of pseudo-science. It is a religion enamored of its own “truth” and of fundamental intolerance for other points of view. That religion in today's world is the Grim Reaper, the executioner of the innocent carried out in the name of God. Simply put, the face of religion we see on the daily news doesn't seem to be such a good thing. No wonder that so many Christian and Jews (many of them our best and brightest) have minimized or neutralized it in their daily lives as long evidenced in how they celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah. The only difference this year is that they will be doing their seasonal thing the same time. We can blame its religious neutrality on Wal-Mart, Best Buy or Bloomingdales and on the fundamentalists of all stripe who are threatening our way of life (personal and societal) but in the end perhaps most of all on what is, and what is not, going on at the corner Church, Synagogue and to be fair, Mosque. That's not merely a reality of this year of convergence. It has been in the works for a very long time. Happy holidays!