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Jewish World Review
Dec. 23, 2011/ 27 Kislev, 5772
Santa's not pagan
As a non-Christian with a deep affection for Christmastime, I've always felt a little left out around this time of year, but not in the way you might think. I've always felt a bit out of place with the venerable conservative tradition of denouncing the "war on Christmas."
I should offer some background.
When I was a kid, my parents cut out a jokey headline from a local newspaper that read "Santa Knows We're Jewish" and put it on a cardboard Christmas tree ornament. My father insisted I be raised Jewish. (I went to a Jewish day school and was duly bar mitzvahed.) My Episcopalian mother insisted we celebrate Christmas.
Ever since, I've always loved Christmastime, and it never occurred to me that when raising my own child we wouldn't have a Christmas tree. No Hanukkah bushes for the Goldbergs, please.
Anyway, this time of year conservatives bemoan the effort to scrub the public square of overt religiosity, specifically any suggestion that the big holiday we're all taking time off to celebrate is also a Christian holy day. I feel like a conservative Canadian living in America. I care a lot for a fight that's not really my own.
I think conservatives have the better of the argument, of course. Every year there are enough "war on Christmas" horror stories to lend validity to the complaints.
For instance, this year, the sage bureaucrats of Loudoun County, Va., had the brilliant idea of letting Santa be crucified outside their courthouse. And it wasn't even a jolly Saint Nick. It was a Halloween skeleton in a red Santa suit. It looked like a weird prop from a post-apocalyptic horror movie. "The zombies got Santa!"
Meanwhile, the Swedish branch of UNICEF put out a commercial depicting Santa as hard-hearted 1-percenter who scoffs at the idea of bringing presents to Third World kids. "Come on. I don't do poor countries."
And those are just the highlights. Incapable of getting around the inconvenient first six letters of the word "Christmas," more and more people have decided to duck the issue entirely. Increasing numbers of public schools insist on celebrating "winter solstice." Congress cannot send out "Christmas" cards. The governor of Rhode Island declared that the traditional Christmas tree would henceforth be christened -- whoops! I mean called -- a "holiday tree."
I have no grand solutions. I don't know how you could pass a law to fix any of this. Nor am I sure we would want to. This is a cultural problem, and the only way to fix it is to work it out in the culture. To that end, I have some small observations to mull alongside the eggnog.
While it's absolutely true that there are sincere and committed Christophobes and joyless atheistic boobs out there, one of the major culprits is capitalism itself. I like capitalism -- a lot. Heck, the best Christmas present I could get would be a Scrooge-like conversion on the part of the president after a visit from the Ghost from Socialism Past. But the downside of capitalism is that it will, eventually, encourage the commercialization of everything sacred. For instance, there's an online "dating" company dedicated entirely to facilitating adultery. It shouldn't surprise anyone that a holiday symbolized by a man who gives presents would be exploited. That doesn't mean we have to surrender to the trend, but we should recognize all of the trend's sources, not just the convenient ones.
On a different note, the supposed champions of making Christmas more "inclusive" should at least ponder the irony that they are being intolerant. If you take offense when someone says "Merry Christmas," you, quite simply, are the jerk.
And for the atheists who see "winter solstice" as some kind of victory, you might consider the fact that what you're doing is clearing the field not for glorious logic (which ain't so glorious Christmas morning -- socks are a logical gift), but a rank, petty and vastly more commercialized paganism that lacks anything like the intellectual and moral rigor of Christianity.
Intellectual defenders of a secular Christmas hammer the point that there are some vestigial Pagan frills to the Christian holiday, as if this proves something important. Indeed, in pop culture it's now a given that Santa's boss is "Mother Nature" (and his colleagues are the tooth fairy and the miser brothers). It's pretty odd that a Christian saint -- you know, Saint Nicholas -- doesn't answer to God, but to a pagan deity. And we all know paganism is such a font of tolerance. My hunch is that Santa goes right past the houses with "Santa Knows We're Pagans" signs.
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