When I was working at daily newspapers, we used to have an unspoken competition to see who would write the first “ ‘Tis the season’ ” headline. Trite and predictable, nonetheless, in a headline writer’s world it was one of those must-be-written seasonal lines. Never before Thanksgiving, though! The key was its judicious use. In those days of huge Thanksgiving papers, fat with advertising for this sale and that special, it was difficult to put out a special section without more than one “ ‘Tis the season” headline. But we had editors who made sure that didn’t happen.
I never thought I’d write another headline like that while working for a Jewish newspaper. But here I am ….
We associate those three words with specific non-Jewish winter holidays. But living in the United States, we really can’t get around the fact that these holidays touch us all. Advertising hits us. Walk around your neighborhood, and you see twinkling lights or candles in many windows. Most stores have been celebrating the season since before Thanksgiving. And in our public institutions, the sounds and symbols of the season are in evidence everywhere.
How do we deal with all this input? This is a question that I’ve wrestled with since I was a child growing up in a not-very-Jewish neighborhood, attending a public school where I was the exception rather than the rule.
Make no mistake: I was raised in a Jewish household. Religious school was a requirement. At this time of year, our family menorah was a source of constant fascination since it looked like it could have held oil at one time. There was no Christmas tree masquerading as a Hanukkah bush. Santa was a jolly actor at the local department store.
We did enjoy our neighbors’ holiday light displays, but I don’t ever remember any discussion of why that didn’t happen at our house. A really big treat was an invitation to help a friend decorate their Christmas tree. That was fun for anyone.
During Hanukkah, we got eight small gifts. It was fun but no big deal. Often there was lined notebook paper and a new box of Crayolas in the bunch. My mother made delicious latkes.
In school I participated in chorus, as did my sister. There was a wide range of music, including Hanukkah songs. And we sang with little regard for the words. We participated because that was what we signed on to do. We enjoyed the music. I suppose we could have opted out had we found any of it offensive. But the group depended on our voices. And we learned to appreciate alternate ways of thinking.
Our parents impressed on us that we had made a commitment to sing, just as they made sure we knew we were Jewish.
We are a country that mandates separation of church and state. There are many schools of thought about how far this should go. I’ve heard the outrage regarding school choirs singing religious carols at the State House. Several years ago, when the governor tried to call the tree on display something other than a Christmas tree, he was held up to ridicule that continues to this day. These protests come from people of many religions.
Instead of getting upset, perhaps we should look at this from a different perspective and focus on the fact that we are experiencing different customs, cultures and religions. We all benefit from getting to know our neighbors and their customs. Shouldn’t we be slow to be offended by other’s religious activities? Freedom of religion in this country is why so many came to the United States. It’s why we feel safer here than in many countries. As a minority perhaps we should learn from others’ religious celebrations.
If you are strong in your own beliefs, what could it hurt?