EACH CHRISTMAS MORNING I wake up relieved that the struggle against “Happy Holidays” is over for another year. Holidays are holy days, after all. When Hanukkah and Christmas arrive so close together as they do this year, I wonder if it would be possible to announce “Happy Holy Days!” into the secular void. The wondering calls to mind “A Rabbi’s Christmas,” an essay by one Jakob Petuchowski. When it was written 20 years ago, the author was a professor of Judeo-Christian studies in Cincinnati, of Jewish liturgy in Arizona, and a rabbi in Laredo, Texas. Where is he now, I do not know. But I remain grateful for his words, published in the December, 1991, issue of First Things.
The rabbi does not celebrate Christmas nor accept the Christian belief structure. But he does recognize in the Christian observance of Christmas “one of the factors that help maintain the religious character of our society-in which Jews, too, with their own beliefs and practices, and with their very lives, have a considerable stake.”
Speaking of himself in the third person, he writes:
What really intrigues him is the fact that millions of his non-Jewish fellow human beings are celebrating the birthday of a Jewish child. And they are doing so by extolling the values of peace and good will. All the more misplaced, he thinks, are the efforts by some supposedly Jewish organizations to arouse, through their battles against Christmas symbols in public places, the ill will and resentment of Christians—at the very time when the Christian religion, more than at other times of the year, inspires its followers with irenic and philanthropic sentiments.
Sober attention is given to historic reasons for Jewish suspicion toward Christian expressions of good will. Christianity, after all, has not been an unmixed blessing for Jews. Nevertheless:
. . . what we are really dealing with in this annual battle against public Christian observance is not so much a “Jewish” attack on that observance as it is a secularist one—with some of the prominent secularists identifying themselves as Jews. They are the same people who fight non-denominational prayers in public schools, the use of public school facilities for meetings of high school religious-interest groups, and state support of private schools. They fight with equal vigor the attempts by other Jewish groups to have Jewish religious symbols exhibited alongside the Christian ones, such as the efforts of the Chabad (Lubavitch) group of Orthodox Jews to place a Hanukkah candelabrum on the public square when a Christmas tree is put up there, which would be a fitting demonstration of America’s religious pluralism. They are, in other words, not singling out Christianity. They are against the public manifestation of religion per se-even (or perhaps particularly) against the public manifestation of the religion of their own ancestors.
The invocation of the First Amendment as authority for the campaign against the public display of any and all religious symbols seems to involve the demand that the state “establish” the religion of Secularism as the official religion of the United States-which would, to say the least, be a rather curious use of the First Amendment. But even if one were to grant, for argument’s sake, that the lawyers employed by the American Jewish Congress, the (Reform) Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and similar organizations have established the “true” meaning of the First Amendment, i.e., that the amendment really and truly rules out the public display of a crèche or a Hanukkah candelabrum, one would still be entitled to wonder what those organizations hope to gain by stirring up animosities every winter.
. . . Life in the medieval Christian world-in which, by the way, we no longer happen to live-certainly was no bed of roses for the Jews. But Jews fared infinitely worse in those modern societies from which the God of Abraham and of Jesus had been banished. If Jews cannot forget the Middle Ages, they owe it to themselves to remember the most recent past, too. One could argue, therefore, that the very self-interest of the Jews is at stake in preventing the United States from becoming a totally godless society.
As the saying goes, read the whole thing. And, above all, Merry Christmas.
© Maureen Mullarkey