Battle Lines Emerge on Marking Holiday

The sound of angry Christians railing against the marginalization of Christmas has become the new tune of this holiday season. Across the country, from department stores to town halls, battle lines have been drawn over how to mark the winter holidays.
December 22, 2005

The sound of angry Christians railing against the marginalization of Christmas has become the new tune of this holiday season.

Across the country, from department stores to town halls, battle lines have been drawn over how to mark the winter holidays.

Led by evangelical groups, which say the holiday’s religious significance is being ignored, some Christians are fighting back. They’re threatening to sue school districts that have banned the singing of Christmas carols and other places where “Happy holidays” has replaced “Merry Christmas” as the preferred greeting of the season.

Evangelical leaders don’t cast the Jewish community as Scrooge, yet efforts to highlight Christian themes and celebrations at Christmas historically have come at the expense of religious diversity and tolerance, say some Jewish leaders.

“It is not a movement prompted by an animus against Jews or the Jewish community,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who in recent months has spoken out on what he characterizes as the growing evangelical influence in the United States. “But the unintended consequence is that Jews may be blamed for it.”

Rabbi Leah Richman of Pottsville, Pa., received angry letters and phone calls when she called for the removal of a nativity scene in her town square.

“The non-Jewish people in the area are very interested in promoting Christmas and they believe that church and state should be more mingled,” Richman said. “They’re taking my stand as being anti- tolerance and anti-diversity because I’m not tolerant of their nativity scene.”

Instead of opposing the nativity scene, some respondents said Richman should place a menorah nearby. Indeed, much of the evangelical community’s argument has rested on a call for more celebrations of both Christmas and Chanukah, part of a call for a return to “Judeo-Christian values.”

“It just seems to me that what we ought to be aiming for in America is recognizing everyone’s traditions, rather than melding traditions into a homogenized whatever,” said Gary Bauer, president of American Values, an organization associated with the Christian right.

The onslaught of Christmas decorations and programming for years has been a source of quiet frustration for American Jews, but decisions about how to handle it have varied. Some Jewish groups have worked to ensure that religious Christmas displays don’t enter the public square, while others — predominantly the Chabad movement — sought equal treatment for menorahs and other Chanukah decorations.

The inclusion of Chanukah and then the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa has forced retailers and municipalities to seek more generic and inclusive ways of acknowledging all faiths. That has led, in due course, to claims that Christianity has been taken out of Christmas celebrations.

Boston renamed a tree in Boston Common a “holiday tree.” Target, the giant retailer, was criticized for airing commercials in December that did not specifically mention Christmas.

Even Pope Benedict XVI has weighed in, declaring this month that a “commercial pollution” of Christmas could alter the holiday’s true meaning. He suggested families erect nativity scenes in their homes.

The pro-Christmas movement comes at a time of growing evangelical political strength, giving their message increased weight and attention. Evangelicals have fought this year against efforts to remove proselytizing from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and to promote the teaching of “intelligent design” in public schools. Nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court have been evaluated, in part, on their church attendance and their public proclamations of faith.

Some evangelicals have “come to feel a certain strength in their position in America and in the public that they didn’t feel under President Clinton,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and chairman of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Even the White House has been chastised for writing “Best wishes for the holiday season” on its annual Christmas cards.

Those who perceive a decrease in Christmas observance, including media figures like Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson, both of the FOX News Channel, claim Christmas is being excluded from seasonal decorations in a misguided attempt to be sensitive to minorities.

“It’s mostly guilt-ridden Christians,” said Gibson in an interview. He’s the author of “The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought” (Sentinel HC).

Added Bauer: “The Jews I know are not offended by the words, ‘Merry Christmas.’ The controversy doesn’t seem to be coming from believing Jews.”

But some Christian leaders do accuse Hollywood, the media and the American Civil Liberties Union of taking the religion out of Christmas — and all three groups are widely viewed as being run by Jews, Foxman said.

Eckstein warned of a backlash if Jews are perceived as being on the front lines of the fight.

In Coatesville, Pa., Councilman William Chertok was accused by a colleague of voting against an increase in the city’s Christmas parade budget because he was Jewish.

“I understand, Mr. Chertok, that Jews don’t celebrate Christmas,” Councilwoman-elect Patsy Ray said in a meeting in November. Her comments prompted rebukes from the City Council and the local media.

Chertok said he voted against the increase for budgetary reasons.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has been often cast as the lead opponent of Christmas celebrations. He said evangelical leaders are trying to place Christmas and Christianity above other religions.

“There’s a kind of Christian triumphalism; a feeling that Christians have to win every battle,” said Lynn, who commented by telephone while shopping for Christmas presents. “There is a fear that other religions are going to be treated the same as Christmas, and that means Christmas won’t have its special place five weeks of the year.”

Scholar Jonathan Sarna asserts that the Christian evangelicals have some reason to be concerned. Because at some level, they are gradually losing their battle with history.

“What we’re seeing in America today, with the evangelical emphasis, will be looked back on as the last gasp to hold onto an America that is [solely] Christian,” said Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

At the same time, supporters of interfaith dialogue say that as the majority religion in the United States, Christians have a right to see more expressions of their faith.

“It’s a legitimate feeling when 90 percent of the country is for it,” Eckstein said. “I am not threatened by someone who affirms his faith.”

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