The evening of Christmas day I went up to the local hospital to visit a friend who had been taken ill that morning and after visiting with him, as I headed to the elevator, ran into a doctor friend of mine. We were discussing our Christmases and our experiences at Church Christmas eve as well as our dinner and celebrations Christmas day. As we got into the elevator a man was there with his two young boys. All three wore yarmulkes and one could see the fringes of their tallit under their jackets. My doctor friend continued the conversation with me saying in particular how much he enjoyed the music of the Christmas season and how lovely it had been at midnight Mass with violins and trumpets and the pipe organ. As he left the elevator, he wished me a Merry Christmas. After the doors closed, the older of the two boys turned to his father and asked “why do these goy rub our noses in their holydays.” I think from his tone—as well as his timing—the question was meant to be insulting to me, but I admit that as I drove home and saw how many houses are illuminated for the holidays and I realized how for those who do not celebrate Christmas, they simply cannot escape from it. One turns on the television and there is the Charlie Brown Christmas Special or Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. All sorts of wonderful foods are available only at this time of year: the bakeries are filled with special cookies and fruitcakes abound; we have eggnog in the stores along with pizzelle and plum puddings. On the radio are songs about Grandma getting run over by reindeer and Jack Frost nipping at our nose. Even the houses that aren’t hung with lights have a wreath on the door and a tree glistening beyond the windows. There is no escape from Christmas. I noticed in the paper this morning (the day after Christmas) an article about how a local Jewish Community Center provided a morning of games and entertainment for the children of those who do not celebrate Christmas because so many of the places one might go and take one’s children are, in fact, closed for Christmas Day.
And yet, the holiday in which the noses of non-celebrators are so egregiously rubbed, is not, for the most part, Christmas but a totally other holiday that like a parasitic mistletoe has attached itself to Christmas and feeds off it, even killing the host holiday. In one of our neighboring towns there was a petition to ban a “Christmas Tree” from the village commons because it was a “Christian symbol.” In some towns the tree is “balanced” by a menorah. I am by no means opposed to a menorah on the town square, but the Christmas Tree is not a Christian symbol. The equivalent symbol to the menorah is the crèche.Most of what we associate with Christmas is the celebration that surrounds the winter solstice. The lights, the trees, the Yule log, the holly and the mistletoe—this is all about the turning of the solar corner as our days slowly start to lengthen again and spring—still a long way off and the other side of winter storms—shines like a distant star with promise of warmth and new life. This is not a Christian-specific holiday. Far from it: it is found in practically every culture. In fact, the celebration of Christ’s nativity was attached to it since we do not know the historical date on which Jesus was born. In the fourth century Christians began commemorating the birth of Jesus, according to some sources, in conjunction with the Roman feast of the dies natalis solis invicti—the birthday of the unconquered sun which was celebrated December 25th. (Some historians dispute this and give other reasons for the December 25th celebration although Saint John Chysostom (+407), patriarch of Constantinople, explicitly explains this connection. Some other sources tie the Christian feast of Christmas to another pre-Christian Roman holiday in December, the Saturnalia, a feast which called for the exchange of gifts.) In any case, the decorations, the lights, the tree, the gifts, many of the songs, movies like White Christmas and so many other “Christmas Traditions” belong to the non-Christian celebration. The candles in the windows, the carols, church-services, belong to the Christian feast. They all go together quite well as long as we Christians can keep them straight and give a priority to the elements that celebrate the birth of the Savior. This tends to be something we do in Church and among our families. No non-believer need fear of having this pushed down their throat or have their noses rubbed in it. On the other hand, I wish my Jewish friends “a happy Hanukah” or a “joyous Pesach,” even—for my observant friends, “a good Shabbat,”—what is wrong with expecting to be wished “A Merry Christmas.” Do we begrudge each other happiness?