The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Alexander Goldberg is the chair of the Faiths Forum for London and Jewish chaplain to the University of Surrey.
By Alexander Goldberg
There are no Christmas trees in my home, not even a Chanukah bush, no sign of tinsel and no sound of children singing carols. If I was asked on Facebook to describe my relationship with Christmas, like most Jews I would opt for the ‘it’s complicated’ or even the ‘separated’ status. The personage of Jesus, whose birthday it marks, is the main theological divide between Christianity and Judaism. So whilst a minority in my community do mark it in some way, it would be difficult for me as an observant Jew to do so. Perhaps therefore, it is surprising to some that I have joined the HappyChristmas4All campaign. So why?
For me, it comes down to good neighborliness. It gives me no satisfaction to see others denigrate another person’s religious festival or stop my neighbours from practising their beliefs. That’s why I joined the HappyChristmas4All campaign that has attracted over a thousand supporters on Facebook and captured the attention of the broadcast media in Britain. People have signed up for their own reasons, but in essence Muslims, Jews, Christians, Sikhs and secularists have joined together to say Christmas in Britain must be respected. Some from other communities have gone further and I have learnt this week from both Muslim and Buddhist friends the meaning that the birth of Jesus has in their traditions.
The ‘War on Christmas’ myth needs to be debunked. I share similar concerns to my closest Christian neighbours that the festival risks becoming on one hand a secular consumerist feast or on the other a time when the majority of the population wrongly believes it has to play down celebrations so as not to offend others.
Consumerism is dangerous. The current global economic crisis has shown what happens when we borrow beyond our means. Christmas is a time of great debt for many families who face huge pressures to get those close to them expensive and highly marketed gifts. I share the concerns of those that see this consumerist festival is slowly usurping the religious one that promotes ‘Peace on Earth’ and encourages family gatherings. A religious Christmas is a tonic to this excess and a national consumerist festival is of no interest to any of us.
Playing down Christmas celebrations is not the answer either. We should not make it into some inert ‘Winterval’ or generic ‘Holidays’ which is increasingly popular in the United States. There is a tendency to roll the Jewish holiday of Chanukah into Christmas and celebrate the Holiday period along with Kwanzaa, Chinese New Year and Thanksgiving. Don’t get me wrong, I really appreciate it if someone offers me Happy Chanukah greetings or wants to play ‘spin the dreidel.’ But let’s face it — Chanukah is a minor Jewish festival whilst Christmas is one of the most important days of the Christian calendar. Sso why ‘big up’ Chanukah or have our neighbours downplay Christmas? Indeed, critics of the term ‘Happy Holidays’ deem it to be either consumerist in its origins or an attack on the centrality of Christmas for the majority of the population in the United Kingdom and the United States.
The ‘War on Christmas’ seems to take away enjoyment for the majority of people and only a few bitter secularists and some ideological extremists, who want to be on the fringe of society, want to see that happen. Surely a Christmas tree or lights on the Main Street or at City Hall can’t possibly offend anyone. The notion is simply ridiculous. I used to get phoned up by public sector workers two weeks before Christmas when I was the Senior Race Equality Officer at the UK Government’s Commission for Racial Equality. They were concerned that placing a Christmas tree in the town hall would offend non-Christians. In the main, the same authorities were marking Eid, Diwali and Chanukah where there were sizeable relevant populations. So I asked them, why not Christmas? I told them that I would be offended if 85% of the population could not celebrate their festival. Point taken, my advice was often met with relief and I am probably responsible for saving a dozen or so Christmas trees in town halls across Britain.
Journalists have been fascinated by the numbers of religious leaders from Jewish, Muslim and Sikh backgrounds joining in with this call to respect Christmas. Even the orthodox Chief Rabbi of Britain, Lord Sacks, joined in. On n a recent visit to the Scottish Parliament, he stated that “Jewish and other faith communities love the fact that Christians celebrate Christmas… When I go to Trafalgar Square and hear carols being sung, I feel uplifted.”
When they ask me what I am doing this Christmas, I tell them that I have a role. The country still needs people to work or volunteer. At Christmas time, members of my family offer to take colleagues shifts at work or volunteer in understaffed charities in order to help others take the time off to celebrate their festival, or else look in on those that may be lonely over this period. And when asked, I urge members of my community to do likewise. In other words, to show respect for Christmas and their neighbours. Happy Christmas for all…