Winter season means the winter holidays. For some that means Hanukkah, for others it means Christmas or Kwanzaa.
Living a Jewish life in the Diaspora is always a balancing act, but never with as many intricacies, decisions and sidesteps as during the winter holiday season. Jews who care about their Jewishness cannot avoid the tension.
From Thanksgiving through New Year, Christmas music is heard in every elevator, at every shopping mall and on almost every radio station. Christmas themes decorate store windows. And red and green, the colors of Christmas, take over the marketplace for everything from food packaging to car advertisements.
The United States is a society deeply informed by Christian, specifically biblical, tradition. For parents who care about their children’s Jewish identities, identifying and explaining those Christian symbols become important teaching moments. For parents who are or wish to be assimilated, the tensions are irrelevant and the symbols of Christmas are presented not as religious, but as cultural. They are part of Americana.
For Jews who care, Christmas is a period of clarity in a world where things are seldom clear. We are Jewish – and we do not do that. They are Christian – and that is what they do. We have Hanukkah, they have Christmas. Some years, the distinction is easier, other years, like this one, when the dates coincide, not so easy. For those who are less clear, confusion and compromise reign. Some Jewish families readily and with no second thought invite Christmas trees into their homes. Other, more conflicted Jews, buy the trees and introduce them as Hanukkah bushes.
Most Americans, Christians and non-Christians, do not even realize how ingrained Christianity is in American history and geography. To prove the point, look no further than some of the most common names of US cities and towns. Many states have cities named Hebron and cities named Jerusalem. Lebanon is the fourth most popular name for a US city, and Salem is the eighth most popular.
One has to look at these names from the point of view of the founders of the United States. For them, Lebanon was certainly not a modern Arab country north of Israel and south and west of Syria. Lebanon was the biblical supply center for the great building materials used in the construction of the Temple of Solomon. Naming a town, village or city Lebanon was thought to be a great blessing, a segula for economic success and for meaningful significant work. The place, the name of the place, resonated with the founding fathers. After all, in Deuteronomy 3:25, when Moses argued with God about his resting place, Lebanon was suggested as a desirable option.
SALEM IS easily recognized by readers of US history as the place where the infamous Salem Witch Trials took place. The Witch Trials were after the time of the Founding Fathers, and there is huge biblical significance of the name. Salem is a synonym for Jerusalem and it is found in Genesis 14:18. Everyone who read the Bible during the period of founding of the United States – and that would be just about everyone – knew this. Salem means shalem, complete and fulfilled. The name of the King of Salem, Malchizedek, was translated as the King of Righteousness. Malchizedek was a fellow monotheist who greeted Abraham and blessed him in the name of God on most high.
For the founders of the United States, giving cities these names was following in the footsteps of Abraham. It was a manifestation of their desire to participate in a great tradition, a tradition that transformed the world. Selecting those names was profoundly and deeply significant. And it proves the Christian link to US tradition and history.
Not to see that link and realize its significance is a mistake. Christmas traditions are not simply American secular – they are Christian. There is nothing wrong with that, but one must recognize it for what it is. Yes, there will be those who counter this argument and say that the Christmas tree is actually borrowed from pagan tradition in Central Europe. That is true. But the star atop the Christmas tree, adorning almost every Christmas tree, symbolizes the Christian epiphany. The star symbolizes the story found in the Christian Bible in Mathew 2:1, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the East and have come to worship him.” The meaning is clear.
African American leadership in America understood this. That is why in 1966 Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa, a seven-day celebration of giving gifts and candle-lighting that culminates in a feast. Kwanzaa is an African American tradition. Originally conceived of as an alternative to Christmas, Kwanzaa is now an addition to Christmas. Its creators wanted blacks in America to embrace their difference and Kwanzaa was a tangible example of that difference. It has become so much a part of US tradition that, in 1992, Hallmark began selling Kwanzaa cards.
Those Jews who do not care about Judaism are very comfortable embracing secular America with all its traditions and trappings. Those who care, however, need to embrace winter for all its trappings, the cold air and the hot chocolate, and teach their children the distinction between Jews and Christians.
Without this distinction Jews will disappear.
The author is a political commentator who hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern.