Although the weather seems determined to ignore the calendar, Christmas is around the corner. The commercially-decreed holiday season began weeks ago, and in the last few days, holiday displays have appeared in our college dining halls. Although the trees, menorahs and Kwanzaa displays certainly add color and character to sometimes bland meals, I find myself bothered by the message they seem to convey — about both Judaism and religion more generally. I certainly don’t think we should remove these displays, but I do think students should take a moment to think carefully about what they represent.
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My first objection is a particularly Jewish one. The day that commemorates the birth of Jesus is immensely important for Christians, and so it has been for generations. Hannukah, on the other hand, is a distinctly unimportant holiday. Invented by rabbis centuries after the biblical holidays of Rosh Hashanna, Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot or Sukkot (how many of my readers have even heard of these?), Hannukah’s liturgical and ritual significance is negligible.
There is only one reason that Hannukah has been given the place of prominence it currently occupies in the American public and at Yale: Christmas. As American Christians try to navigate their way through the Scylla of free expression and the Charybdis of the establishment clause — as they struggle to balance a desire to practice a particular faith with the need to maintain the appearance of universality — they find that glorifying Hannukah is a useful tool. “Of course, this isn’t a Christian space — see, there is something Jewish too!”
As a Jew, then, there is something deeply disturbing about knowing that Hannukah is being privileged over other, far more significant holidays in the service of Christianity. Now, the entirely public conception of Hannukah is determined by the needs of American Christians. This incongruity is only heightened when we remember that Hannukah was established to celebrate the survival of Judaism in the face of Hellenistic assimilation.
There is another, less parochial objection. All religion — not only Jewish ritual — is stripped of some of its meaning when holidays go public. I’ve inspected some of our college Christmas trees, and I have found neither nativity scenes nor crosses decorating them. Although I am personally grateful that I don’t have to interact with such overtly theological symbols in a campus dining hall, a part of me laments the way in which religion is being driven underground and religious articles are being hollowed of their meaning.
Frighteningly, these public holiday displays therefore have the simultaneous effects of privileging Christianity in particular and denigrating religion in general.
But articulating these objections leaves me feeling like Ebenezer Scrooge. These criticisms, if taken too seriously, have the potential to become overly analytical ramblings, lacking any sense for the aesthetic or the emotional. Of course, there are very good reasons for the presence of these displays.
First, Yale is a storied institution with a long history. Objecting to holiday displays is an assault on tradition and a defiance of culture. Although holiday displays certainly have religious meaning, they also have cultural and institutional meaning. And it is simply silly to uproot the latter because of the former. I would think it absurd to remove the biblical “urim and thumim” from Yale’s crest, and winter holidays have taken on similar cultural status throughout the country.
It is also no accident that so many religions celebrate holidays at this time of year. The days are being consumed by night, and the weather is getting colder; there is a deep human need to light fires in the darkness and find joy in the gloom. Injecting some holiday cheer into the stress of finals and the seasonally-induced depression is both psychologically sound and historically authentic. We certainly shouldn’t deprive ourselves of the celebrations and displays that add meaning and light when we need them most.
We offend if we display religion authentically, offend if we do so superficially and offend if we do so not at all. So what should we do? Ultimately, the best path is probably to proceed as we currently do — but to do so consciously.
Even as we instrumentalize religious symbols, strip them of their spiritual meaning and assign them bit parts in a secular, commercialized, cultural drama, we should recognize the tragedy that accompanies these acts. But by being aware of the challenges presented by pluralism and by keeping a steady eye on the values we must juggle as we imperfectly chart our collective course, we hopefully find a way to honor both our faith and one another.
Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. His column runs on Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.