One of the dubious triumphs of capitalism is that it reduces all religious impulses to a question of commercial viability. Hence has Christmas been converted into a massive display of consumerism, with the actual religious significance and implications of the birth of Jesus now softpedalled in favour of junior's new bicycle. In modernity, Christmas sings the cash register electric, transformed and denuded of any actual substance: out with the saviour's arrival, and in with Bing Crosby, the department store window display, the portly man in the red suit. And it is precisely this dilution of a very distinct religious message--one that is clearly antithetical to Judaism--that has allowed the Christmas spirit and its treacly materialism to find itself resurrected, if you will, alive and burning in the heart of many a Jewish youngster.
My students cry "Foul" to my grinch like appraisal of their seduction at the hands of the corporate Christmas machine. "What's wrong with Christmas?" they ponder. "It's not a religious holiday anyway. We like the songs and the movies and it's just a nice time of year." What's wrong indeed? The Grand Inquisitor of contemporary life destroys Jews not through anything so crude as forcible conversion or physical torture. The threat here is far more subtle and thus twice as insidious. If Christmas "isn't really about Christianity," then the Jew can enjoy it without inconvenient feelings of guilt or even betrayal. It's not about Jesus, Ma, it's about Frank Capra.
Many Jewish children are given a Hobbesian tour of Hebrew or Sunday school - it is nasty, brutish, and short. I recall afternoons spent listening to teachers talk about Biblical figures and ritual customs that I felt, at the time, had absolutely nothing to do with the life I was then living - or trying to learn how to live. It wasn't until many years later, teaching the poet Milton to second year undergraduates at the University of Toronto, that I realized that the "Hebrew school blues" was really just a Jewish example of a widespread phenomenon. Verse after verse of Paradise Lost alluded to the New Testament, but the sources were utterly foreign to my predominantly Christian students. An entire generation had turned off of God and certainly off of organized religion. When I asked them if they had learned the Bible as kids, their amused countenances and sheepish stories of boredom in church told me that we had led parallel lives to that extent.
But Christian disinterest in their faith takes its own ironic toll on Jews. It blurs the distinctive and serious disagreements between the two religions and causes Jews to lose track of their own identity. Today's youth of all religions actually share a common language that is utterly secularized. The theology of the Talmud versus that of the Church Fathers is an utterly irrelevant dispute; what really counts is the Lakers and the Spurs.
Perhaps most sadly, what the shadow of Christmas inevitably leads to is the distortion of Chanukah among modern Jewry. Intimidated by the mess o'presents at the foot of the tree, Jewish kids and parents have managed to transform Chanukah into our own version of the winter shopping spree. As someone aptly quipped, if Chanukah comes before Christmas, it's an inoculation; if it follows, then it's an antidote. But Jewish holidays become absurd when they are relegated to reactionary status. It is time to reclaim Chanukah for what it is - a celebration of the Jewish determination to remain committed to Judaism even in the face of immense cultural pressure. As Shlomo Carlebach once said, the whole world is waiting for the Jews to be Jews.