Anyway, I went to the Authors Out Loud talk on Kosher Christmas at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center on Monday night. Rabbi Joshua Plaut talked about his book on how Jews respond to Christmas. His thesis is that Jewish celebrations of Christmas as a secular American holiday are actually good for Christmas. Anybody who knows me will know that I disagree.
First, he talked a bit about the history of Christmas as an American holiday. It didn't become a national holiday until 1870 and I think he missed an opportunity by pointing out that many early colonists (notably the Puritans) were opposed to celebrating Christmas. He also failed to point out that Christmas as a national holiday should be clearly unconstitutional. (I know I have no chance of winning that, and I don't need to piss people off by pressing the point, but it is pretty obvious to me.)
From the strictly Jewish standpoint, there's a big distinction between the reactions of German Jews and Eastern European Jews, which reflects differences in their behaviors outside of America. So, for example, I was surprised to learn that Theodor Herzl had a Christmas tree. My understanding from my father is that relationships between Jews and non-Jews were generally good in Lithuania except on Christian holidays (more Easter and, actually, particularly Palm Sunday, than Christmas). But, certainly, one can't really expect people to embrace a holiday that was treated as an excuse for pogroms.
At one level, I handle Christmas the same way I handle, say, Diwali. I'm happy to go to parties friends have, but I don't need to celebrate explicitly myself. When I was growing up, we did help neighbors trim their trees and my mother got out the cookie press to make dozens of butter cookies in shapes like trees (decorated with green sugar crystals) for neighborhood events and we always drove around town looking at decorated houses. But we would never have considered having a Christmas tree. (I should note that for Chanukah we lit a candle menorah, and, when the candles burned out, turned on an electric menorah.)
So here's my problem. Doesn't that secularization of Christmas that Rabbi Plaut celebrates diminish its religious context for those for whom it is a religious holiday? Just as I hate the Supreme Court ruling that lets menorahs be on public land because it assumes they are secular symbols of Jewish identity, I can't understand why Christians don't object to calling a creche non-religious as long as there are a few reindeer thrown alongside it. While I think that objecting to people saying "Happy Holidays" versus "Merry Christmas" hardly constitutes a war on Christmas, pretending that Christmas isn't a religious holiday does.
I also don't understand why all the hoopla about Christmas stops on December 26th, which is the 2nd day of a 12 day holiday, but that's another subject.