Sorry to be such a scrooge, but let me tell you about my day...
I woke up and turned on my favorite morning show. I learned new recipes for the favorite holiday drink--egg nog; tips on how to decorate for the holidays on a budget by trimming the mantel and staircase with wreaths, green swags, and small lights; followed by the best toys to buy for kids this holiday season.
I then read my local newspaper, which featured a big story about how the Colorado governor's mansion has been decorated for the holidays, accompanied by a large photo of the Christmas tree. Every section in the newspaper featured Christmas-themed ads.
I then drove to work, flipping through the car radio dial to find music that was not Christmas-themed. I entered my office building, where a large Christmas tree sat in the lobby. Due to concerns raised a few years back about the heavy focus on Christmas, the tree has now been renamed "The Giving Tree." It is decorated by ornaments made by children at the campus day care center, with requests for donations as a part of our annual Holiday Service Project. I wonder how Jewish, Muslim, and other non-Christian students feel each time they enter the building...
On my way home, I stop off on a few errands. In the grocery store, I am greeted by another large Christmas tree. As I wander the aisles I hum along to Jingle Bells, All I want for Christmas, Blue Christmas, Feliz Navidad, and Here Comes Santa Claus. The friendly cashier wishes me a "Merry Christmas" on my way out. The clothing store I stop in to pick up some items for my daughter is also playing Christmas songs. At the checkout stand, the sales clerk asks me if the cute slippers are a Christmas gift for my daughter. "No," I mumble, "we celebrate Chanukah."
My daughter comes home from school with a letter asking parents to purchase "poinsettias and other holiday greens" to raise funds for the school. While they now call them holiday plants rather than Christmas plants, Chanukah does not involve holiday greens. And if you aren't familiar with the origins of poinsettias as a Christmas tradition, you can read the story here. The popular red color is said to symbolize the blood of Christ.
When I walk outside to the mailbox that evening, my neighbors' homes twinkle with colorful Christmas lights and reindeers. I leaf through the day's mail, which includes numerous ads such as the one from my local car dealer, offering special prices on oil changes for the holidays. The entire mailing is red and green, with images of red bows and candy canes.
So you see, while it may not seem like a big deal that someone wishes me a "Merry Christmas," and I genuinely appreciate the good will and cheer being offered, for non-Christians like myself, this time of year can be anything but merry (24% of the U.S. population of about 304 million do not define themselves as Christian).
And the Christmas mood is impossible to ignore or avoid. In the workplace, schools, shops, radio, newspapers, television, movies, private and public spaces are all Christmas themed from mid-November through the end of December. Lately I have been mortified to discover myself humming Christmas songs as I walk across campus. I bet I can sing the words to more than a few dozen Christmas tunes. I ask my Christian readers, how many Chanukah songs can you recite? And it is not insignificant. Not only is it all-pervasive, all day long, when I do the math, I discover that is adds up to about ten years of my life that I live in this exclusionary Christian culture. (If I live to be eighty, one and half months per year of that time adds up to ten years over a lifetime!)
I have started talking about this issue with some of my Jewish friends and family members. One friend complained to me about her workplace tree-trimming party. When I suggested she talk to someone about it, she responded with fear, "I am not going to be the person who took away Christmas!" Unfortunately that is the way it is often seen. As if non-Christians who complain are trying to take away Christmas. Suddenly Christians become seen as persecuted. But the question is not how do we stop the celebrations, but instead, how do we create a more inclusive culture, a climate where everybody feels included? I don't have the answer, but I can think of many ideas. As a starting point, it would be wonderful if organizations had meetings or discussions to brainstorm ideas about how to make their environments feel religiously inclusive. Simply demonstrating that this is an issue worth thinking about is one step to making people feel more included.
Some workplaces and schools take the minimal step of including items like menorahs and kinaras in their holiday displays. But in writing this, I started to think about all the people in this country whose religions have unwisely failed to schedule a major holiday in December. Because of Christmas, December has become defined as THE holiday season. Even within Judaism, Chanukah is only of minor significance, yet it has become the most widely known and recognized Jewish holiday because it falls close to Christmas on the calendar.
This is what Shirley Steinberg and Joe Kincheloe call "Christonormativity." It means that Christianity is the normative culture in the US, and we are oblivious to what that means for non-Christians. Experiencing the overwhelming sense of exclusion I feel at this time of year, I try to use this insight to understand what it feels like for LGBT people in this heteronormative culture of ours. Or for people of color in this predominantly white culture. It gives me some insight into what they experience all year round. And just as most Christians are oblivious to how non-Christians feel this time of year, my privilege allows me to be oblivious to how it feels to not be white and heterosexual.
So, my hope this holiday season is that we will all take a few minutes to stop and think about what it means to have privilege, as well as what it means to strive to be inclusive. Not everyone is made to feel that this is the "most wonderful time of the year."