Neutering Santa

Serious Christians have always been ambivalent about how society celebrates Christmas. It's hard to get children to focus on the birth of Christ, and what that means, when the arrival of Santa Claus--and all that that portends in the way of hectic getting and spending--is imminent. The quiet subtleties of "Silent Night" are no match for the clang of "Jingle Bells."

Now it appears that even the secularized Christmas that Santa represents is too sectarian for some keepers of the nation's public spaces and commercial places. Wherever you look, references to Christmas have been suppressed in favor of a featureless "Seasons Greetings."

A prime commercial example is Macy's, locus of the classic Christmas film "Miracle on 34th Street." This year, Macy's corporate owner, Federated Department Stores, has advised that the words "Merry Christmas" should be avoided in its Yuletide decorations. But Macy's is hardly unique. Saks Fifth Avenue clearly wants the store to "feel a lot like Christmas" without actually acknowledging the season as such: its awnings are trimmed with a litany of words--JOY, PEACE, HOPE, GLORY--that read as if they were cribbed from Christmas carols, like gems without a setting. On Union Square I plunked some coins in a Salvation Army kettle. "Have a happy" was the response I got. Rockefeller Center still shimmers under its towering tree, but then the Christmas tree is of pagan, not Christian origin.

The neutering of Christmas is hardly confined to Blue State secular Grinches. In Colorado, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper declared that, beginning next year, the traditional MERRY CHRISTMAS would be replaced by HAPPY HOLIDAYS in the lights over the City and County Building. After citizens protested, the mayor reversed himself, saying that both salutations would appear next year. In that reddest of Red States, Texas, the Plano Independent School Board has barred students from wearing red and green to their annual "winter break" parties because these colors evoke Christmas. The ban extends to paper plates, which must be white. Folks in Franklin Village, Mich., no longer celebrate their annual Holly Day Festival. It is now called a Winter Festival because, as one prominent storeowner who backed the change explained, "Holly Day had the connotation that it was strictly a Christian festival. We wanted to make it more inclusive so we changed the name."

I can understand why a retail store or a civic celebration might want to be as inclusive as possible during "the holidays." But without the tradition of Christmas, as both a religious and a secular celebration, there would be no "holidays" associated with late December--and no after-Christmas sales either. Chanukah, after all, is a minor festival on the Jewish calendar and Kwanzaa, created in 1966, is not religious at all. Why, after centuries of "Merry Christmas," should public recognition of Christmas at Christmastime be treated as toxic?

Public schools have long been ground zero for the "December battles" over religious symbolism in the classroom. As a Christian, I was delighted when my own kids sang Chanukah songs in school. But now in several school districts in California, Florida and Illinois, student choirs have been ordered to delete all Christmas music from their programs--even, in some cases, the harmless "Jingle Bells." A similar edict by school officials in Maplewood, N. J., that disallowed even instrumental music like Handel's "Messiah," prompted Mayor Steve Lonegan to schedule an evening of "illegal" religious singing this week outside a local high school. In New York, a court ruling that permits the display of menorahs in public schools during Chanukah, and of the star and crescent during Ramadan, is under legal challenge because, in the court's opinion, Nativity scenes at Christmas should be banned as "overly religious." That's a slur on Jews and Muslims, as well as an insult to Christians.

We have been through this kind of nonsense before. A quarter century ago there was an uproar in New Jersey after a local school board forbade a Jewish student from wearing a yarmulke to class. His display of religious identity, it was argued, was socially divisive. Clearly there is something wrong when the cult of inclusiveness demands--as it did in Afghanistan under the Taliban--exclusion of religious expression. This isn't secularist France, either: we don't forbid female Muslim students to wear religious head coverings.

Rather than ban in the name of inclusion we should celebrate in the name of pluralism. My friend, the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, always insisted that what Jews want most from Christians is that they be good Christians. From this holy man, the descendent of a long line of Hasidic rabbis, I learned what it meant to be a good Jew. And every year at this time Heschel always called to wish me a "Merry Christmas."