White house xmas tree 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
If you are a baby boomer born in the US, you probably can sing more than a dozen Christmas songs. It doesn't matter whether you are Jewish. In fact, Jews composed "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "White Christmas," World War II-era songs that remain the most enduring music of the Christian season. Even Bob Dylan has a Christmas album this year.
My baby-boomer generation was bombarded with Christmas music. This music is sectarian at times and nondenominational at others: sacred (the birth of Jesus), secular ("Frosty the Snowman") or seasonal ("Let It Snow").
The music is so pervasive here for a few months each year that, whatever its intent, it is stripped of meaning. I can sing these songs as I would an early Beatles tune or an advertising jingle for a popular product - recalled without thinking.
That may not be a problem if the song is "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" or "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." People of the Christian faith, however, may take offense about the overuse or abuse of "Little Drummer Boy" or "Silent Night." Americans are incessantly exposed to Christmas music in stores and in TV commercials and on the radio at the end of each year. There is a line, though. A recent federal court decision says Christmas carols do not belong in public schools.
Some people will see this decision as part of what has been called a "war on Christmas." This refers to legal challenges to the display of religious symbols or holiday themes in/on government-owned space. One of the basic rights in the US Constitution is the freedom of religion, which is also, in a sense, freedom from religion; the individual is free to worship or not, while the government is barred from establishing or endorsing any religion. This is the basis of the strict separation of "church and state."
LAST MONTH, a panel of a federal appellate court upheld the policy of the South Orange-Maplewood School Board in New Jersey that bans religious music at holiday events in the public schools. The school policy is to teach about religion, but not to celebrate it. In December 2004, one parent, Michael Stratechuk, sued the school board saying the ban violated his children's rights.
He was represented by the Thomas More Law Center, which says it "defends and promotes America's Christian heritage and moral values." The center said it would appeal the court's decision. "This ruling is another example of how the courts have tyrannically twisted the [Constitution] as a weapon against Christians in the war on Christmas," Richard Thompson, the center's president, said in a statement.
For the center, the issue seems black and white: If one does not permit a religious celebration, one is hostile to religion. Not so, said the American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League, National Council of Jewish Women, American Jewish Committee and Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which jointly filed a legal brief in support of the school board.
The policy, their brief said, does not bar using religious music to teach about religion, only the singing of Christmas carols and other holiday songs. The Jewish organizations noted that they support teaching children about religions. However, they argued, as members of a minority religion, they are keenly aware that "decisions to reduce religious content commonly have their origin in efforts to be fairer to religious minorities."
American courts have recognized that neutrality toward religion does not imply hostility toward it, and that a secular state is not an atheistic or anti-religious state. However, the Thomas More Law Center referred to the federal court decision in the New Jersey case as a "Christmas insult to Christians." Had the decision gone the other way, we would be writing about a holiday insult to American Jews.
The federal court acknowledged that "those of us who were educated in the public schools remember holiday celebrations replete with Christmas carols, and possibly even Hannuka songs, to which no objection had been raised." That would be me.
It has been 40 years since high school, so I can't recall much. But I credit public school for making me capable of performing heartfelt renditions of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Joy to the World" - without believing a word of them.
Surely that also is a Christmas insult to devout Christians.