Once upon a time, Americans were honest: They said, “Merry Christmas” and talked about “Christmas vacation.” Then, in an ingenious attempt to honor diversity, Americans switched to, “Happy holidays” and began referring to “the holiday season” – a purportedly all-inclusive, religiously and culturally appropriate, pan-American time of year that was still all about Christmas. True, the occasional Hanukkah, Ramadan, or Kawanzaa bone was thrown out there, but it was often at inappropriate times, such as two weeks after that holiday had passed, or with inappropriate greetings, such as “Happy Ramadan,” which, seriously, who wishes someone a happy fast?
Images and music are shortcuts for conveying ideas and eliciting feelings, and together they rally people around central themes. Images and music of “the holidays” center around decorated trees, Santa Claus figures, sleigh bells, reindeer, and – especially where there are no religious minorities around to bitch about it — nativity scenes and Jesus references. (Think “Joy to the World,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” for starters.) As an Iraqi-American Jew, those images and songs are a far cry from being culturally appropriate or even distantly relevant to me. And yet, I am expected to get all warm and fuzzy from them – ie, swept up in “the holiday spirit.”
Changing the language of Christmas was not a step toward multicultural celebration, but it was a brilliant marketing coup. The switch not only covered up America’s blatant preferential treatment of Christianity, which is decidedly unconstitutional, but it made Christmas (emphasis: Christ) even more insidious, taking the dissent-squashing Scrooge concept one step further: Since “the holidays” are now touted as a universal, religiously- and culturally-inclusive celebration, what kind of asshole can possibly object to them?
Memories of Christmas Past
When I was a little girl, I attended orthodox Jewish day school. During late December, my mother, sister, and I would drive around our neighborhood in San Francisco, admiring the pretty Christmas trees in people’s homes and sharing which were our favorites. Because I had not yet been shoved under the Christmas bulldozer, I was eager to appreciate and, in my own way, participate in the celebration of someone else’s holiday. Then when I was eight, I was switched to public school, where it was compulsory for all students to make Christmas decorations and, for those of us in the music department, to sing Christmas carols and play Christmas songs. Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas… It was like an hysterical mantra, all up in my face for an entire month.
I remember how, in fifth grade, a Jewish girl and I conspiratorially drew menorahs and Stars of David throughout the winter wonderland poster the class had to make. Debbie and I characteristically did not get along, but we were a team that day, the two of us with our markers, in a bold act of 10-year-old insurgence. We had complained to the teacher about religious discrimination, and while she would not back down from promoting Christmas, she did authorize us to “add [our] holiday symbols” to the poster hanging on the front of the door. Oh, we added them alright, giggling as we drew, and once we were done, there was no doubt that Jews were in da house.
Meanwhile, the only Jew in choir, I fought the fact that we were forced to sing the gamut of Christmas songs – from explicitly religious numbers like “Noel” and “Silent Night” to more symbolic ones like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” When I raised my objections, the teacher justified these songs by pointing out that we also were singing “I Had a Little Dreidel.” I distinctly remember thinking how inane it was to compare a dreidel song (about a plastic toy) to a Jesus song (about the Christian god). In addition, I could not help but notice that the Christmas songs outnumbered the dreidel song by, oh, about a million to one.
As I recall, after back-and-forth negotiations, the teacher and I compromised by agreeing that I would not sing the explicitly religious songs but that I would sing the general Christmas songs. I have a vague memory of her telling me to just move my lips, though not necessarily lip sync, for the songs I was not singing, so that it would not “look weird” that I was just standing there. The teacher and I disagreed, but I am not sure how that matter was resolved.
I do remember really going at it with full gusto for the dreidel song, all the while aware of the irony: Iraqi Jews have nothing to do with dreidels, and it was in fact a source of contention at my Hebrew school that the Central and Eastern European Hanukkah traditions, including dreidel games, were pushed on everyone — touted as the Jewish traditions. My dad, in fact, used to re-educate my sister and me regularly after school, leaving me wondering why we bothered going in the first place. “What did you learn today?” he would ask us. “We learned about Chanukkah,” we would reply. “We don’t say Chanukkah,” he would inform us. “We say H’nikah. What else did you learn?” he would continue. “We learned how to play dreidels,” we would say. “We don’t play dreidels,” he would advise us. And so on.
Out of the pot and into the fire – from one hegemony to another, clinging to whatever pieces most closely resembled my identity. But I digress. Let us return to Christmas.
Preferential Treatment of Religion
In high school, I was the first chair flutist in orchestra and band. As soon as I discovered that all the performances were on Friday nights, the Jewish Sabbath, I advised the teachers that I would not be able to perform with them, for religious reasons. Each teacher (one married to the other) publicly yelled at and humiliated me in front of the class in response, with the orchestra teacher kicking me out altogether and the band teacher demoting me to last chair.
Then, beginning in November, I was expected to play one Christmas song after another. I believe I refused, because I distinctly remember the band teacher cornering me when I was leaving class one day, informing me that such-and-such Christmas song was written by a Jew, and why couldn’t I be like that man. Parenthetically, another time, this teacher cornered me while leaving, advising me that so-and-so orchestra conductor was a Seventh Day Adventist but still performed on Friday nights, because he felt closest to Gd through his music; so why couldn’t I be like that man.
Meanwhile, I was barred from joining choir, because – as I then knew by then to clarify ahead of time – all the performances were on Friday nights, and the teacher did not want to accept anyone who could not attend performances. Then again, the choir got heavy into Jesus songs in late November, so perhaps it is just as well that I was not involved.
Because of the sabbath conflict, I also was barred from joining the theater group, despite the fact that understudies were used in case students got sick; I could not even think about joining any of the athletic teams, and I was kicked out of the debate team, despite the fact that numerous competitions were held on Sundays. In the latter case, my high school had one of the top debate teams in the state, and the coach wanted students to have enough practice with the Saturday matches so as to also win the Sunday events.
In my junior year, I would not have been able to take drivers education class, were it not for a combined effort of the Jewish Community Relations Council and my friend Colleen, who walked across town just after dawn one Saturday morning (before the buses started running), to sign up on my behalf. The school had patently refused allowing me to sign up on Friday, and it had taken a major battle just to allow someone else to do it for me on the day of registration.
Not only did teachers systematically exclude me from all extra-curricular activities in school, in a decidedly unconstitutional refusal to accommodate my religious observance, but a number of them actively antagonized me for my religious observance. Take the example of my geometry teacher during freshman year:
In the beginning of each year, I approached all of my teachers with copies of a Jewish calendar, in which I had drawn big red circles around the dates where I would be gone for religious observance. The holy days came one week after another throughout September and October — R’shana, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, and Simhath Torah – what you might call the “holiday season” for the Jewish community. Being that these observances coincided with the beginning of the school year, it was always challenging to keep up with my school work. As an orthodox Jew, I could not do any studying during these days.
I was in the honors programs of the best schools in the city — including an exclusive magnet high school, where students routinely came to school sick, even with fevers, because it was so difficult to catch up with the copious amounts of work, after falling behind. I, meanwhile, not only took five or six challenging Honors and Advanced Placement classes each semester, but also missed about 10 days by the second month of school, because 1) the holy days added up to seven days, 2) people came to the synagogue when sick, 3) I slept as little as one hour a night when I was not observing sabbath or a holy day, so as to catch up on my school work, and 4) my body was worn down as a result of the exhaustion, stress, and exposure to illness.
To stay ahead as much as possible, I asked teachers to advise me of the lessons and assign me homework in advance. When I approached my geometry teacher, he literally threw the calendar in my face, barking at me, “If you want to take a vacation, that’s your problem!” Throughout the semester, he proceeded to deliberately assign quizzes and tests – including pop-quizzes and pop-tests that comprised significant portions of our semester grade – on the day of or the day after Jewish holy days. I was a straight-A student throughout my life, despite the fact that even in middle school, I was sleeping just a few hours a night, so as to catch up on my school work after the holy days. And yet, this man made it so impossible to succeed that I got the first C of my life.
Both academics and extracurricular activities count for college, and I got heavily dinged on both fronts. My parents complained to the principal of my school, but he did nothing. Meanwhile, the math teachers were so consistently awful that I ended up having to drop out of honors, and I struggled so much with chemistry that I quit just one semester before the Advanced Placement (AP) exam. And so, while my peers took the AP tests for math, science, and English, as I had planned to do, and while they were then exempt from freshman math, science, and English in college, as I had planned to be, I only was able to take the AP English test – not surprising, considering that my English teachers were the only ones to caringly accommodate my religious observance. In fact, it is not surprising that I ended up a writer today. People walk through doors, not walls.
On that note, I am forever grateful to my high school class advisor, for sticking her neck out on my behalf. My high school debate team was in fact so amazing that we did not have a high school valedictorian, but rather, a high school historian and salutorian – both of which were selected through speaking competitions. My school had no tolerance for speeches that were anything less than riveting. The original date of the competition was scheduled on Passover, to my exasperation. I approached my high school class advisor in tears, begging her to get the date changed. “I have not been able to do anything throughout all four years of high school,” I cried. “I just want this one opportunity.” Gd/dess bless this woman, she went to bat for me and got the date changed.
And so I competed against state champions from my high school debate team. And kicked their collective ass. As the class historian for Lowell High School circa 1987, I have this to say to the high school debate coach who would not let me compete on Sundays, because I would not have the experience on Saturdays: Suck it.
What does this all have to do with Christmas, you ask? As I was forced into the Herculean struggle of juggling my religious and school lives, and as I was punished in active and passive ways for being a Jew, those who celebrated Christmas got not just the day of the holiday handed to them on a silver platter, but an entire two weeks around it. To add insult to injury, Christmas does not even have prohibitions against working, studying, driving, turning on lights, writing, or any of the other myriad of things that makes it impossible for religious Jews to participate in school or work life on Jewish holy days. So while Jews and other religious minorities struggle to keep up their grades or hang onto their jobs while taking off just the very days of their religious observance, those celebrating Christmas get half a month off for partying. Talk about “taking a vacation.”
Which all goes to say, as Christmas cheer has been shoved down my throat at school, at work, in the supermarkets, on television, in government offices, and pretty much anywhere else I have turned, for an entire month (and now for ¼ of the entire year), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every year of the past four decades of my life, and as my tax money has gone to fund aforementioned cheer, well, let’s just say I have not exactly been “in the spirit” of things.
The Fascist Vibe of the Christmas Spirit
The question is why Christian and Christo-Secular people (let’s face it – there is no neutral secular culture) feel the need to celebrate Christmas in such an in-your-face, mass-hysteria, all-encompassing way. It is as if “Christmas spirit” cannot exist unless absolutely every single person gets into said spirit.
By way of example, let us bring to mind the story of a Jewish family living in a predominantly Christian neighborhood. All the neighbors were lighting candles and putting those candles in brown paper bags, then placing the glowing bags in front of their homes. The Jewish family politely declined to participate, explaining that they were Jewish and therefore did not celebrate Christmas. Well. The neighbors would have none of that, so a few of them lit an extra candle, put it in a paper bag, placed it in front of the Jewish home, and bolted.
Compulsory Christmas. Uniformity masquerading as universality. You. Must. Celebrate. Christmas.
Then there is the story that happened one fine December day at a public school with a predominantly Christian student body. When a Jewish student politely declined to participate in the Christmas festivities at school, one of the Christian kids violently slammed that Jewish child against a locker, yelling, “You just don’t get it! This is a holiday about peace, love, and good will!”
Need I elaborate on what is wrong with this picture?
When I think of Christmas, the following words come to mind: fascist, dogmatic, imperialistic, dissent-squashing, cultural-bulldozing, all up in yo business, pain in the ass, murderous day. Yes murderous. Over the centuries, across the Christian world, Christmas was a favorite day for massacring Jews. After all, Christmas is all about celebrating the birth of Jesus, touted as the son of Gd who, according to Christian narrative, was murdered by scheming, crooked Jews. The entire premise of Christianity, in fact, is the scorn, hatred, and rejection of all things Jewish; after all, why be the spinoff religion, when you can be the real deal? Some justification must be created. While that is another article for another time, and one that most likely will get me into pretty hot water, the idea is that Christmas is loaded, and not just with shiny presents.
Speaking of loaded, about a decade ago in San Francisco, a politically-correct office manager invited all the employees to bring to work a symbol of their holiday. Because, as we all know, “the holidays” are about everyone. So this Jewish guy, with whom I am proud to say I am acquainted, brought a gun and placed it squarely on the table. Everyone, of course, was horrified. He advised them that Hanukkah commemorates the revolt against Roman occupation of ancient Israel; that it is a holiday of armed resistance.
And just how did Hanukkah come to be Christmas Jr.? In Iraq, Jews lit the Hanukkiah (special candelabra), sang a song or two, and donated money to yeshiboth (Jewish learning institutions) to preserve Jewish continuity; because, again, Hanukkah commemorates Jewish resistance to assimilation and therefore is all about preservation of Jewish identity. Here in America, however, Hanukkah has been blown up into the Christmas psycho-twin. You have one day of presents? Fuck you. We have eight.
Here’s the thing: While I do hold Jewish parents and the Jewish community accountable for resisting Christian temptation and Jewish distortion, I also hold the larger society responsible not only for making Christmas culturally mandatory, but also for creating such a frenzied Christmas environment that those who do not celebrate Christmas are outright pitied. Perhaps if there was a little more awareness of and value for diversity – true diversity, not just compelling minority groups to masquerade as the majority group – Jewish kids wouldn’t be so distracted by, and Jewish parents wouldn’t be so pressured by, all that Christmas bling.
Let me set the record straight: Not only do Jews neither control nor run the United States, but it is damn challenging to be an orthodox Jew in this country. If perhaps the leadership at our schools and places of work stopped wishing us happy holidays during Christmas and instead put all that good cheer into finding ways to accommodate Jews who miss school and work for Jewish holy days, without penalization, chances are that more Jews would celebrate said holy days. With solid identity and pride stemming from the practice of our own tradition, Jews very well might stop dabbling in Hanukkah bushes and otherwise denigrating our legacy by mutating ourselves into second-rate imitations of Christian and Christo-Secular Americans.
As public institutions close on Christmas, as public streets get decorated with Christmas symbols, as Christmas music blasts out of every loudspeaker of stores that characteristically decorate the shopping bags with Christmas images (thus forcing Christmas into every home, like it or not), and as everyone from the bus driver to the bank clerk to the café barista wishes customers “happy holidays,” without stopping to question whether the customers actually celebrate said holidays, the message being sent to religious minorities, around the clock and from every direction, is this: You do not belong. This is not your country. This is not your culture. You are “other.”
A core impetus behind Hanukkah bushes and the like is the desire to be “part-of.” We should, however, be able to belong as we are — without having to be subsumed by someone else’s identity and narrative.
The Christmas PR machine is not only so overwhelming but also so compelling (and I say this as a professional publicist: brilliant marketing) that one year in high school, I consciously chose to allow myself to be swept up in the “Christmas cheer” tidal wave, just to see what it felt like. I distinctly remember enthusiastically embracing my friend Amanda, as both of us jumped up and down, shouting “Merry Christmas” in the orgiastic fervor typical of Christmas spirit. Amanda looked radiant. I felt hollow. Far better to be the salmon fighting the current, I concluded, than to be a fish swept up in someone else’s tide.
For many years, I educated people when they wished me “Merry Christmas,” or more recently, “Happy Holidays.” “I don’t celebrate it/them,” I would reply, “but you have a good one.” Frequently, people responded with pity – either through looks or words. Finally I gave up. It was easier to just say “thanks” or just reply with “take care” or the like, instead of educating each and every single person crossing my Christmas-free path. But then when my neighbor Jill wished me Merry Christmas on December 25, as I was taking my bike out of my house to go for a ride, I just had to say something. “I’m Jewish,” I said, reminding Jill of a fact she knew perfectly well. “Can’t I just wish you Merry Christmas?” she replied, with a tone and body language indicating that she was bestowing me with a precious gift, and I was spitting it back in her face. “I’m. Jewish.” I replied, exasperated. And that was pretty much the end of Jill’s and my relationship.
I have no objection to the celebration of Christmas in and of itself. I object to the fact that it is celebrated in a way that steam-rolls over the identity of those who do not celebrate Christmas. It is touted as the universal pinnacle of human experience, as if there exist no holidays that offer comparable happiness or spirit or connection with others. It also, annoyingly, takes over the calendar. December 24 and December 25 no longer exist. They are, quite simply, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. And everyone in this culture is expected to know not only the dates but also the lore, songs, and customs of Christmas, whereas those who celebrate Christmas are not expected to know the same for holidays of religious and ethnic minorities.
Imagine if I were to wish store clerks, Tizkoo leshanim raboth unemoth (may you merit many pleasant years) before R’shana (the Jewish New Year). Blank stares and oooh-kay confusion would ensue. Chances are that even you, dear reader, have no idea what I just said.
On that note, if someone really wants to be all-inclusive, wishing everyone “happy holidays” in December simply does not cut it. Instead, one should take a minute to find out what holidays someone in fact celebrates, and say the appropriate greeting at calendar-appropriate times. In the age of Wikipedia, there is truly no excuse. The information is all right there, on the mighty internet. But even a simple gesture in December, like saying “happy holidays if you celebrate them,” can go a long way. The implication is, “I recognize that you, Christmas non-celebrator, exist.” Pretty cool.
Meanwhile, Christmas has been extended from a month-long assault to a full-on seasonal one. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Christian new year have morphed into one gigantic “holiday” mush, and one can now purchase Christmas stockings in the aisles right next to the Dracula masks. Yay.
There are of course those who say that Christmas is not at all Christian, but rather secular or Pagan. I see the Christian stronghold in all of these assertions. Christianity conquered and converted Pagans, as Christianity conquered and converted, if not outright massacred, every other religious group it could get its hands on. Christianity not only co-opted the holidays and customs of these various groups, in yet another brilliant PR coup, but Christianity is in its very foundation based on the co-opting (and bastardization) of Judaism. And while most Americans celebrate Christmas not through mass but through exchanging gifts, it does not take away the Christian roots of Christmas. Just look at the name: CHRISTmas.
As a former client of mine articulately and succinctly states, “Religion creates culture.” Most Americans may not be Christian and may not celebrate Christmas for Christian reasons, but secular America is imbued with a Christian sensibility so deep at the core of this country that it takes a religious person of another faith to see it. Similarly, white people can’t see whiteness because white equals “normal” in our society. It is the status quo. It therefore takes a person of color to see how very white our culture is.
The blind imposition does not stop at Christmas. There is also the whole issue of “New Years.” All new years are qualified – Jewish new year, Persian new year, Chinese new year – except one: Christian new year. The Christian new year is simply “New Years.” As with Christmas, we are all expected to bow down to and celebrate this new year as our own. “But it’s secular,” people say, looking at me oddly, when they wish me, “Happy New Year,” and I inform them I do not celebrate it. Secular? Really? We’re now in 2013 AD – Anno Domini, ie, the year of our Lord. Anything before the year 0, which is assumed to be the year that Jesus was born, is “[insert year] BC” – Before Christ. Secular my ass.
Only one person, other than my mother, seems to have any awareness of this issue. “Does it annoy you that the world operates according to a Christian calendar?” my friend Danielle once asked – Danielle herself being an awesome, independently-thinking woman from a Christian background.
Christmas and the Jewish-Christian Relationship
Again, the central question is why Christians and Seculo-Christians cannot just honor their holidays privately. What is this compulsion to shove their holidays in everyone’s face, to make everyone celebrate their holidays with them? It is invasive, imposing, dare I say violent. One might even call it severely co-dependent. As in, I cannot wear a red dress unless you, too, are wearing a red dress; therefore, I will force you to wear a red dress, even if you virulently hate red dresses, so that I am able to wear my red dress in a sea of red dresses, which is exactly how red dresses should be worn at all times.
A telling example is the hubaloo over Christmas at my mother’s Jewish independent living center. The center accepts people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, the non-Jews of whom have launched, over the years, a mission to erode the Jewish character of the center. Dripping with Christian and Christo-secular entitlement, they have been offended not only by the presence of Jewish celebration – such the kosher kitchen – but also by the absence of Christian celebration. The Christian and Christo-secular residents in fact created such an uproar that today, when you walk into this Jewish institution, established and funded in large part by Jewish organizations, you are assaulted by a Christmas wreath, larger-than-life size Christmas tree, and miscellaneous winter-wonderland paraphernalia.
In addition, when residents were given permission to decorate their personal apartment doors, and only their personal apartment doors, with Christmas imagery, a few residents took it upon themselves to also decorate the walls surrounding and across from their doors. Now one is assaulted by Christmas imagery from all sides, while walking past certain units.
It is all par for the course of how Christianity has operated over the millennia. During the Spanish Inquisition, for example, Catholic leaders routinely corralled Jewish leaders and forced them into compulsory religious debates. The juries, of course, were totally rigged, and the whole debacle was a setup to justify the massacre and expulsion of Spanish Jews. Catholics could not just practice Catholicism and allow Jews to practice Judaism. Jews had to practice Catholicism. Or else.
And so we come to a core issue at the root of Christianity in general and Christmas in particular: Christianity is founded not only on the rejection but also on the villainization of Judaism. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, not only said to be the son of Gd, but said to have been murdered by the duplicitous, scheming, deceitful, cunning, shrewd, and ultimately evil Jews who therefore cannot, under any circumstances, be trusted. Therein lies the reason people are so willing to believe that Jews run the media, banks, government, and fill-in-the-blank:
Jews killed Gd.
Seriously, you cannot be more of a scary, two-timing, butt-fuck asshole than if you have killed Gd. And herein lies the implicit, if not explicit, justification for the persecution of Jews throughout Christian countries, over the millennia. Jews are the perfect scapegoat, because Gd-killers are obviously evil and therefore are most certainly behind anything and everything unseemly in society. One can never, under any circumstances, trust Jews. They may seem warm and friendly, but that’s just the devil in disguise.
And here’s the kicker: If Jesus did in fact exist, he was a Jew – killed like other Jews, on the cross, by the Roman empire conquerors of ancient Israel, in a grotesque, brutal, horrific punishment for simply being a Jew. Not only were Jews murdered on crosses in their own land, but for the next 2,000 plus years, Jews were collectively blamed, punished, and massacred for the possibility that Romans murdered a fellow Jew on a cross, for the crime of being a Jew.
To make things even more perverse, Hanukkah specifically honors the Jewish revolt against the Romans during the very period that Jesus supposedly lived and died on that there cross. And now Hanukkah cowers in the shadow of Christmas. Unbelievable.
I could overlook the Jew-hating roots of Christianity and Jew-murdering history of Christmas, in the interest of knocking back a few eggnogs with all the shiny-faced, well-meaning Christian and Christo-secular types, if only Christmas were not shoved down my face 24/7, with the demand that I, too, revel in its halo of glory — as if Christmas were central to my very existence. But 1) the public celebration of Christmas is a blatant violation of the American Constitution, whose tenets I hold dear; 2) Christmas is compulsory, both culturally and financially, therefore stealing my freedom of choice; 3) religious minorities are penalized for celebrating their own holidays on the very day of said holidays; and 4) it is impossible to escape Christmas – not only on the holiday itself, but now, for an entire quarter of the calendar year.
Which all goes to say: Christmas cheer? Not so much. Christmas is, quite simply, a yearly assault that I do my best to power through – turning off all forms of mass communication where I do not have total control; avoiding all public gatherings that are not specifically of a religious minority (ie, Christmas-free); and shopping with earplugs, so that Frosty the g*damned Snowman stays the fuck out of my head.
A pioneering Jewish multicultural educator, writer, healer, musician, and public relations manager, Loolwa Khazzoom now synthesizes it all through music-driven programs with her band, Iraqis in Pajamas – facilitating irreverent motivational speaking programs. Her work has been featured in media including The New York Times, CNN, and Rolling Stone and can be found at Loolwa.com (new website launch in January).