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How Do Non-Christians Feel During US Christmas Holiday? - 2001-12-15


Go most anywhere in the United States this time of year and you will see symbols and decorations reminding you that Christmas is near.

In a country that prohibits the government from endorsing a particular faith, Christmas Day, a Christian celebration, is a federal holiday.

People of other faiths sometimes experience a sense of cultural alienation at Christmas time.

They are everywhere on television and the radio - Christmas themed commercials and programming. At Temple Sinai Jewish grade school, 13-year-old Marshal says he tires of the deluge of Christmas messages.

"I want them to have Jewish songs, too, on the radio. For instance, when I am working out, my trainer is Christian so he always plays all the Christmas songs," she says.

Temple Sinai school administrator Debbie Hafetz says the discomfort can be especially acute for non-Christians attending public schools. She says she frequently hears complaints from Jewish parents this time of year.

"They feel extremely threatened and put out, for example, when their kid is in the [school] choir and asked to sing Christmas carols. And all of a sudden a Jewish family that does not practice much Judaism - the hair stands up on the back of their necks. They say, 'Wait a minute. I am Jewish and this is not for me. And I do not want my kid to be exposed to this,'" she says.

An overwhelming majority of Americans say they are Christian. But Christmas was not always the commercialized extravaganza Americans experience today. In fact, during colonial times, austere Puritan Christians sought to ban the celebratory nature of Christmas altogether.

Princeton University Religious Studies Professor Lee Schmidt says Christmas did not receive official state recognition as a holiday until the mid-1800's.

"Between the 1840's and the 1870's it became culturally pervasive as a celebration. With that, it gains state recognition. By then, most people are saying, 'Hey, this is a great celebration and we need more of this conviviality and festivity in our lives.' This became a special lament as the work disciplines of industrialization became more marked. People became more nostalgic about the festivities of the past," he says.

But what of the separation of church and state? Professor Schmidt says in the 1800's the concept of religious pluralism was viewed primarily in a Christian context - specifically, within the many Protestant sects. He says few people foresaw a day when Jews, Muslims, and other non-Christians would become significant minorities in the United States.

Today, he says many people view Christmas as a broader celebration, not necessarily tied to the birth of Jesus Christ.

Clearly not all non-Christians are bothered by the pervasiveness of Christmas. At Temple Sinai, 14-year-old Marissa shrugs when asked about the Christmas Day federal holiday.

"It is a little uncomfortable, but we still have our religious freedoms. And they cannot take that away from us," she says.

School administrator Debbie Hafetz says, as long as one's faith is strong, there is no need for any Jew to feel threatened by Christmas.

"As a Jewish educator, I want to transmit to Jewish kids that their heritage and their religion is so rich and so beautiful that they do not need to feel at all threatened or intimidated by the Christmas stuff; that they can feel great about the fact that they have their holidays and can respect other religions for having theirs," she says.

And, according to Ms. Hafetz, a little humor can help defuse holiday tensions. She has her own version of a popular Christmas song.

"Latkah (potato pancakes) sizzling in the frying pan, No glazed ham, cause you are a Jew, No holly, no Santa, no tinsel no tree, It is not Christmas for me.

You know that dreidles are the way, They are the only games we are allowed to play, And every Christmas eve our fire is burning low, So, it is dim sum, hot and sour soup (Chinese food), to go!

So, everywhere we go, let us concentrate on Hanukkah, Try to ignore the Yuletide fuss, We will go to the movies, have bagels and lox, It is not Christmas for us."

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