American Jews' Old-new December Dilemma

The Christmas culture wars are a test of how America – and its Jewish community within it - balances majority and minority religious rights.

The culture wars over Christmas on the West Coast started with satire but ended with hate.

The National Report, a news site that picks up “where the lamestream media leaves off,” recently ran a story claiming that an atheist teacher at San Francisco’s "Argon" elementary school suspended nine-year-old Timothy Dawson for wishing his teacher a Merry Christmas. The National Report got about 20,000 likes as a result of the story, with nearly 400 links to the original story on Twitter.

The school whose name was pilfered for the scam's setting, the Argonne Elementary public school, fielded more than 75 hate calls, dozens of emails and beefed up security on its premises, all due to the fallout from furious readers. The National Report has since changed the name of the school in the article to “Anon," but that hasn't helped the real school avoid its association, no matter how fictitious, to what critics have termed the "cold war on Christmas."

Promoting the "Christmas spirit" in the United States is now a political, religious and constitutional battleground. ESPN decided not to not run an ad for a Catholic children’s hospital, which claimed to “celebrate the birth of Jesus” and asked viewers to help “reveal God’s healing presence this Christmas” – and then went back on its decision, a move that Fox News called “a stunning reversal.”

But whether this reversal is stunning or merely a capitulation to the Christian right is part of a much larger question of Christmas’s dominance in the public space, and the tenuous balance between the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment which allows individuals to practice their religion freely and publicly and the Establishment Clause which deems the declaration of a national religion unconstitutional.

While the United States has no official religion, and the God in whom we do or don’t trust is widely up for interpretation, there is no escaping the fact that, according to an ABC News poll this past summer, 83 percent of Americans identify as Christian, and according to a recent Pew study, nine in ten Americans will be celebrating Christmas this year.

Christmas has been a U.S. federal holiday since 1870, and for many it has become a cultural holiday; even the most iconic Christmas features such as mistletoe, Christmas trees and caroling have been "reclaimed" as predating their association with the birth of Christ. And in fact according to the Pew study, 48 percent of non-Christians in the United States celebrate Christmas, “but most view it as a cultural holiday rather than a religious occasion.”

As a result, many have pushed for a more inclusive approach to the holiday season, asking that “Christ” be taken out of the jolly seasonal equation. American Atheists sponsored a controversial billboard in Times Square (which has now been moved to across from Penn Station) reading “Who needs Christ on Christmas? No one.” For years there has been a push to encourage stores, companies and public figures not to wish people a “Merry Christmas” but rather “Happy Holidays,” with a recent survey released by the Public Religion Research Institute showing that 49 percent of Americans prefer “seasonal” over “Christmas” greetings.

For the Jewish community, December 25 traditions are far from uniform, despite the Chinese-food-eating, movie-going stereotype. According to the much-commented on Pew survey of American Jews 32 percent had a Christmas tree last year, and indeed, as the number of interfaith families in the United States increases, Christmas has become a growing part of many Jewish and intermarried homes.

But for Jewish families that do not celebrate Christmas, explaining why Santa will not be eating their cookies and milk can be a trying task. Across the United States, Jewish institutions provide educational materials on what has become known as the "December Dilemma," the difficult balancing act of acknowledging and respecting the religious observances (or lack thereof) of all students regardless of ethnicity, culture or religious affiliation. While the Establishment Clause to the First Amendment makes clear that coercive prayer and religious studies have no place in the public school system, the Free Exercise clause is not nearly as cut and dry with regards to the limits on holiday celebrations in the classroom.

The flipside of this dilemma for the Jewish community is the difficulty of fostering awareness for other religious observances throughout the year, a challenge faced by all non-Christian religious groups across the United States. While in most public schools High Holidays and Passover are considered excused absences for Jewish children, many students still face scheduling conflicts, such as exams or extracurricular events which coincide with Jewish holidays. Earlier this year, for example, Lowell High School in San Francisco scheduled a school dance on the eve of Yom Kippur. The school postponed the dance after Jewish parents made the administration aware of problematic date, claiming they were unaware of the scheduling conflict; however this was far from an isolated event.

Such conflicts are a much more pressing issue for minority religions than whether or not there is a Christmas tree in Union Square. The Free Exercise Clause allows all American citizens to practice their religion openly and publicly, but the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from unduly preferring one religion over another. The latter clause exists as a safeguard for minority religions, and is meant to act as a check to ensure that regardless of whether 90% of Americans are celebrating Christmas, that 10% is still equally respected, included and provided the opportunity to express religion freely.

This freedom to express religion freely does not mean that nine year-olds should be reprimanded for celebrating Christmas in the classroom, fictitious or not, but rather that we should be teaching those children even at a young age to respect those of their fellow classmates who don’t. Happy holidays. 

Elka Looks, originally from Tel Aviv, is the Communications Manager for the San Francisco based Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), www.jcrc.org the public affairs arm of the organized Bay Area Jewish community.

Reuters