The Daily Northwestern

Letzter: There is no such thing as a holiday tree

Rafi Letzter, Assistant Photo Editor

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Everything you think you know about Hanukkah is wrong. It is not at all like Christmas. Lumping them together under the banner of “The Holidays” is a mistake.

As I understand it from an outsider’s perspective, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus. Although of course for many secular Americans, Jesus plays only a minor role in the holiday (or none at all).

I know that for many, Christmas is a time for families to get together and feast. There is a tree involved and an elderly reindeer handler. Gifts are given, and retail stores make enormous profits.

At the apex of the Christian year, the holiday also represents the birth of modern Christendom: the religious force that through violence, conquest, inquest and cultural domination built a civilization that spans the entire world. Today, the CIA World Factbook reports that 2.2 billion living souls have been “saved.”

I do not mean to condemn Christianity. Bloodshed is a fact of human history, and “convert or die” has been the mantra of many faiths. My point is that the holiday comes with a certain baggage.

Hanukkah celebrates the victory of a small band of Jewish guerrillas in foreign-occupied Israel over their Greek conquerors in the second century B.C.

The Greeks, according to Maccabees I and II, banned Torah and circumcision, built gymnasiums and bathhouses in Jerusalem and idols in the Holy Temple, killed pious Jews and deposed the divinely-ordained high priest.

On Hanukkah, the great enemy is the usurping faith, defined by idolatry and materialism. So many aspects of Christmas, from Jesus, who matches the Jewish definition of an idol to a T, to the orgy of shopping and spending the precedes the big day, to the bizarre impulse to generalize it to all religions, walk, talk and look like that enemy.

This is why catch-all terms like “The Holidays” demean both faiths. When you call a Christmas tree a “holiday tree” or a Christmas party a “holiday party,” the implicit statement is that the two celebrations are fundamentally the same, or at least that their distinctions are not important. Can you spot the bitter irony yet?

To Christians, using the phrase “The Holidays” says that their practices and culture have no special significance but can be universalized and used as a framework for some sort of generic faith culture lacking in substance or meaning.

To Jews, it says that somehow it is an act of politeness or kindness to subsume our celebration into the broader Christian milieu. Are Jewish children supposed to toss aside their latkes, dreidels and gelt to dance around the tree now that there’s a menorah ornament on one of those branches? Admittedly, it is a far better norm than what my grandfather’s generation faced, getting beat up on the way back from school for their Jewishness — especially during the Christmas season. But why is persecution replaced with these heavy handed overtures to celebrate sanitized Christmas? Jews did not stay Jews because we were not allowed to become Christian, we stayed Jews because we did not want to.

Interfaith dialogue is a great goal and an important one, but in order for there to be interfaith dialogue, we have to collectively acknowledge that there is more than one faith in this big world of ours. So, Christian friends, put up your decorations, throw your parties, sing your songs and light up your trees. But when you do, call them what they are. It’s your holiday, damn it. Be merry and proud.

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