Society & Culture & Entertainment Religion & Spirituality

A Minority in a Christian Nation

For many Americans, Christmas is "the most wonderful time of the year.
" Families reunite for the holiday, tables are loaded with traditional foods and pastries, trees and homes are decorated with ornaments that have been handed down generation after generation, and last, but definitely not least, the Christian faith is reaffirmed and celebrated.
But what is it like this time of year, in a country dominated by Christianity, for those individuals who ascribe to another belief, culture or even race? Does Hanukah or Kwanza fill the void or are we all overwhelmed by the overwhelming holiday of Christmas? I was a member of one of fifty Jewish families in my home town and one of only two Jewish students in my class.
In those days (1950's) religion was still allowed in the public schools so daily, I mumbled through a Christian prayer that started the school day and sat quietly through religious programs during the holidays.
Occasionally, I endured antisemetic remarks from other children on the playground and, as I reached my teens, sometimes from boys I dated who did not know I was Jewish.
My best friend from those days and still today (aren't I lucky?) has an enduring memory of a walk to school with another girl who began interjecting antisemetic remarks into the conversation.
My friend was bewildered and angry and I was hurt and scared.
Where, I ask myself today, does a grade school child learn this kind of language? Being Jewish was much worse during the Christmas season.
My friends talked excitedly about decorating trees and what they expected from Santa's visit on Christmas Eve.
Every year my friend would invite me to her house to help trim the Christmas tree which my parents always allowed.
However, they consistently refused to allow a tree in our house.
One year, I remember asking - no, begging - my father to let us have a tree.
It didn't need to be a Christmas tree, I explained.
It would just be fun to decorate and to look at.
We could call it a Hanukah Bush.
My father, a gentle, soft-spoken man who I knew loved me unequivocally, turned a hard, stern face toward me and said, "No.
We celebrate Hanukah and we do not have a Christmas tree.
" My parents did allow me to go caroling with my Girl Scout troupe and I loved that, going house-to-house in the cold, Northern Minnesota December, singing carols with my friends and feeling a part of the holiday, part of the Christmas spirit.
I wished and wished that I wasn't Jewish, that I wasn't different.
But I grew up and learned that being Jewish was not only who I am, but that it is important to me.
It is my identity as a person, as a woman and I embrace it.
I understand my heritage and I am proud of it.
My husband and I raised our three children in the Jewish religion and never had a Christmas tree.
One year when the children were still grade school age, the doorbell rang on Christmas Eve and I opened it to my next-door neighbor standing on the porch, supporting a small Christmas tree.
He explained that when he picked up his tree from the lot, the proprietor gave him the last unsold tree so he could close up.
We were the only family our neighbor could think of who didn't already have tree.
Would we like it? he asked.
Our three children were all at the door, looking at me, beseeching me to take it.
The decision was mine alone since my husband, a physician, was at the hospital, taking call for his Christian counterparts.
But I knew, just like my father knew many years before, that I couldn't take it.
We were Jewish and it was important to uphold our identity.
My children were disappointed but I knew they would eventually understand, just as I had.
I embrace all our many differences! They are what make us who we are.
They should be shared, enjoyed and celebrated.
But they should never, ever be forced on anyone else.
That's what our country was founded on and that's what our laws embrace.
We are free to worship and live according to our own sets of beliefs and principles, as long as they do not infringe on anyone else.
I know most of us try hard not to do this, but sometimes, and in some places, belief can be so strong that a person feels his or her way is the only way.
I answer them with a resounding NO! Please celebrate and honor your beliefs in your home and your place of worship and not in the community at large.
Remember the child who is out of place, out of color, or out of sync.
I believe it is our job, as adults, to help children understand their own heritage and to grow up into adults who can make their own decisions about faith and family.
I hope I don't sound like Scrooge but the Christmas season does tend to make me ponder.
However, I have found that, as I grow older, I have a very different attitude about celebrating this time of year.
When I watch my friends cook and bake, scurry from store to store to find the perfect gift, drag box after box of decorations out of hiding and finally, on January 2, put the tree out on the corner for pick-up before they collapse with exhaustion, I feel only relief as I luxuriate on the couch with a book or at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas day.
But mostly, I'm glad they are my friends and that we can enjoy our differences.

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