I have never been a fan of Christmas.
As a young Jewish child, I wrote a letter to my local newspaper arguing that Christmas trees in public schools were a violation of the separation of church and state. In the fifth grade, when Santa hats were all the rage among my classmates, I showed up to school wearing a yarmulke in an act of protest. In my adult years, I’ve joking referred to myself as a “one woman War on Christmas”; yes, I am the coworker who will loudly complain about your decision to blare “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” at your desk.
I should note that it is not the celebration of Christmas, per se, with which I take issue. Spending time with loved ones and exchanging gifts are lovely traditions, and while many of the particular traditions of Christmas are not quite to my taste, I’m thrilled to know they give others a great deal of joy. And, as someone who comes from a mixed-faith heritage, I have many relatives for whom Christmas is deeply meaningful and important. (Up until my grandmother died, most of my December 25s were spent at her house, opening presents around her tree — a tradition I remember quite fondly.)
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What I do object to, however, is the culture that’s been built around Christmas, that has elevated one religious faith's year-end festivity into an inescapable, weeks-long period of compulsory celebration for nearly everyone. If you’re Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or otherwise uninterested in participating in a Christian holiday, you can personally opt out of Christmas Day by declining to get a tree and spending December 25 at the movies — but all bets are off should you choose to leave your house (or even turn on the TV) at any moment between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
December in America is a constant onslaught of Christmas culture: Every store gets decked out in Christmas finery and puts carols on full blast, seemingly believing that it encourages shopping. Television shows that normally avoid any discussion of anything approaching religious observance suddenly get into the spirit, devoting extra-long episodes to stories about the generous spirit inspired by this time of year (a generous spirit that, apparently, people who don’t celebrate Christmas know absolutely nothing about). Ostensibly secular offices and schools are suddenly awash in Santas and sleighs and reindeer, all in the name of bringing everyone a little extra joy, the fact that it's their own definition of joy be damned.
It would be bad enough if this aggressive Christmas assault were purely the domain of the rabid right wing; if the only people I needed to worry about fending off were the types who see cries of “Happy Holidays” as an affront to their religious freedom, or the switch from red to green holiday cups as some sign of an Islamic agenda. But the truth is that liberals — even ones who ostensibly embrace religious diversity — can be just as bad as their conservative counterparts when it comes to enforcing the oppressive Christmas climate.
And at a time when religious minorities are increasingly under attack within this country, we to take a long hard look at the way Christmas is used to send the message that America is a nation primarily for Christians.
When I tell a liberal Christmas fan that I just don’t want to get into the spirit, it usually doesn’t end well. If they’re not insistent that I’m missing out (and just no fun), they tend to see my lack of enthusiasm for Christmas as an indictment of their own enjoyment of the holiday.
I’ve heard so many arguments for why my stance that compulsory Christmas is forcing me to participate in Christianity is unfounded — It’s not religious, it’s a secular celebration of consumerism! It’s not Christian, it’s actually Saturnalia dressed up in Jesus drag! They love it in Japan! — none of which seem to take into consideration that, as a Jewish woman, I’m probably pretty well versed in what sorts of celebrations are and aren’t within the scope of my religious practice. (And, let’s be serious, a holiday whose name commemorates the birth of Jesus has, at the very least, some intense Christian heritage that might feel uncomfortable for me).
It’s a reaction that’s disappointing any Christmas season, but this year, as the celebration ramps up in the shadow of the most fatal anti-Semitic attack in American history, it’s particularly disheartening. With white nationalism on the rise, and a president who takes great pleasure in using cries of “Merry Christmas” to bludgeon religious minorities, being non-Christian in America feels more isolating, and unsafe, than ever.
If you want to show support for all the religious minorities out there, perhaps even in the Christmas spirit, I's urge you to be a little more mindful of your Christmas celebrations this winter season — and I don’t just mean slapping a “Happy Holidays!” on top of an obviously Christmas-themed extravaganza. Instead of decking your office with red and green, consider some more secular, wintery decorations (snowflakes and hot chocolate, anyone?). Or, if Christmas inclusion feels non-negotiable, create a truly diverse tableau that equally represents the many different celebrations that take place this time of year — including Diwali, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice and New Year’s.
And above all, please remember that Christmas doesn’t have a monopoly on generosity and joy, anymore than Passover has a monopoly on being anti-slavery. Not everybody needs, or wants, to get into the Christmas spirit, and that’s totally okay. Christmas is not for everyone, but the freedom of religion, and celebration of diversity, that allows for that recognition is — and that is what truly makes America great.