The holiday season is my favorite time of year. I love the shops all decorated, the lights all hanging and the homes all prepped for the holidays. The endless repetition of Christmas carols is just fine with me, and I must confess Southern gospel always speaks to me.
I can remember as a child being fascinated by the baby Jesus in the manger and, after I was grown, going to St Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue on Christmas Eve.
Even though I enjoyed these things, I always knew who I was and who I wasn’t, and going to St Patrick’s on New Year’s Eve didn’t make me Catholic any more than going to a Brooklyn Dodgers game made me a member of their team.
Still, there were lines drawn, and they were very clear. We never had a Christmas tree in our house. We never got Christmas presents. But after listening, I’m sure, to centuries of whining Jewish children, somewhere between Judah Macabee and 1954 in Gimbels Department Store in Manhattan, Chanukah became a major holiday, and we got Chanukah presents. In fact we got eight days of presents, although the quality of the gifts dropped off noticeably by the last day.
Americans are a pragmatic people, from lots of cultures and lots of religions, and generally we work it out, or accommodate or just turn our heads and look the other way.
But there is another side to the holidays. If you have no family or your life is lousy, the holidays are a very rough time. It’s a time of hearth and home for some, but for others it can be a time of despair, bleakness and anger. And for some it’s also a time of threat because things are changing.
I think as we all moved West, our cultures began to blend together more and more, and it wasn’t always so clear who you were, where you belonged and where you didn’t belong anymore.
As people intermarried, got away from the East and their European roots, and mixed with the rest of the country, a whole new mixed culture was born. Some of that is wonderful and healthy and some of that is plain scary. We all see what we now call our family values changing, eroding to some, improving to others. It makes us uneasy because we’re not sure where it’s going and whether we like the direction, and we all try to hang on to something that worked before. I don’t know whether Santa Claus is a religious symbol or a cultural icon.
When things get scary, some people start to get frightened and often angry. Recently, school Superintendent Neil Schmidt sent out a notice restricting what could go into the information packets the kids take home. Apparently, federal and state guidelines say you can’t have anything of a religious nature. It made some people very upset. It seemed rather narrow and silly to me. Nevertheless, if that’s the law that governs, then that’s the law. Whether or not the law should be challenged or whether there is some wiggle room I don’t know, but we have to go very gently into these things for a couple of good reasons.
First, it comes very close to us personally, and every one of us has a religious hot button very close to the surface. Just tell me I have to do it your way or I can’t practice my own way and the hair goes up on the back of my neck. We all have the same visceral reaction, so we have to try to approach these questions with a minimum of viscera and a maximum of intellect.
Secondly, there are a number of crazy people out there just looking to be mad at somebody, and they feed on this type of discord. Ironically, today, someone faxed me an anti-Semitic flier someone was putting on car windshields in Gelson’s Market in the Palisades and in the Sunset Mesa area. We can never eliminate the crazies, but we can keep the dialogue civil.
Some of the questions about the role of religion in the schools are truly sticky. The First Amendment is, of course, the law, but currently the issue of separation of church and state is undergoing another look. Things like Christmas trees and menorahs and mosques in public areas are not always easy issues.
It’s best we all take a deep breath before we go plunging into the fray. Most of these things have been worked out in the past and can be worked out now. For the few issues that can’t, we have a U.S. Supreme Court to serve as the final arbiter.