In 1938, Whittaker Chambers broke with the Communist Party. In Witness, Chambers describes his Christmas that year as one of great joy, in which he first told his children the Christmas story, shared with them the Christmas ornaments that had decorated his childhood Christmas trees, and enjoyed the Christmas carols his daughter was then learning.
At first glance, it is surprising that Christmas 1938 should have meant anything to the Chambers family. After all, Chambers was not yet a Christian, and his wife had never been a Christian. Yet such was the splendor of Christmas as once celebrated in America that Chambers had felt its pull even when he was still a communist. Chambers remembered that “Christmas had always been our one great holiday when I was a boy,” and, as a Party member, he introduced his family to as much of the Christmas celebration as the Party permitted.
A contemporary of Chambers, Fr. Gereon Goldmann, experienced a very different Christmas half a world away. As a conscript in the SS, Goldmann was forced to celebrate not Christmas, but a bizarre winter holiday concocted by the Nazis:
On Christmas Eye, there was a celebration, not a Christian one, but a pagan German Julfest. We were all together and had to sing some trash about the night of the clear stars and other sad substitutes for the true Christmas message.
As shocking as it may sound, the contemporary public observance of Christmas in America bears a much closer resemblance to the Nazis’ Julfest than to the Christmas that enticed Chambers. And this extraordinary transformation has occurred in a generation.
I was born in 1964. Of course, my memories of my family Christmases are warm ones. But I also fondly remember the public celebrations of Christmas. In my public elementary school, we made Christmas ornaments and Christmas cards, sang Christmas carols, and ate Christmas cookies. In junior high, our Christmas concert introduced me to more wonderful Christmas music, including a portion of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Pietro Ion’s “Gesu Bambino.” “Merry Christmas” was a universal greeting, Christmas carolers were regular visitors in our neighborhood, and the profusion of decorations adorning all manner of stores left no doubt as to what holiday everyone was celebrating. Local radio stations would air Christmas music throughout December, and the most popular station in town would air nothing but Christmas music from 6:00 P.M. on Christmas Eve until the end of Christmas Day. Television was filled with Christmas specials, and even the most secular shows almost invariably featured workmanlike and even reverent performances of some hallowed carols.
No one I knew was bothered by the effusive celebration of a national holiday observed by the overwhelming majority of Americans. The only concerns of which I was aware were admonitions against the commercialization of Christmas and to “keep Christ in Christmas.”
Such concerns now seem quaint. As Don Feder observed last December, “Today, the challenge is to keep Christmas in Christmas.” We now have “holiday cards,” “holiday parties,” “holiday songs,” and even “holiday trees.” In order to avoid giving offense to anyone anywhere, millions of Americans are now seemingly content to keep quiet about the holiday they do celebrate and to act as if all sorts of other minor festivals—Kwanza, Hanukkah, Bodhi Day, Diwali, Ramadan, the winter solstice—are equally important. It has reached the point where wishing someone a “Merry Christmas” is a political act, not a friendly commonplace. Think about it: When was the last time a store employee, seeing you buying presents on Christmas Eve, wished you a “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays”? When was the last time you wished a stranger “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays”?
My first introduction to the anti-Christmas mania that has engulfed America occurred in college. In 1984, a suitemate and I attempted to introduce Christmas cheer to our dormitory by putting up a Christmas tree and a nativity scene. Unfortunately, our suite also housed prospective students visiting the campus, and we were told the creché had to go, lest a prospective non-Christian student take offense. Apparently, high-school seniors were so delicate that they could not withstand the knowledge that other people might not believe everything they did.
Law school was no better. In 1988, the new dean of the Michigan Law School, Lee Bollinger, issued an edict to the law-school student singing group, the Headnotes, declaring that they could not sing any Christmas music at the school’s end-of-semester gathering. This prohibition covered not just religious carols, but any song that even mentioned the word “Christmas.” (Ironically, Bollinger’s academic specialty is the First Amendment.) Instead, the law school offered up an absurd, leftist commentary on “Antigone” set to awful contemporary music. (As a friend remarked, it was beginning to look a lot like Thebes.)
Of course, the desire to suppress Christmas is scarcely confined to higher education. My sisters’ children until very recently attended a public elementary school in an affluent Detroit suburb. In that suburban system, which has a student body that is overwhelmingly white and (at least nominally) Christian, teachers are forbidden to mention Christmas. Instead, they teach about Hanukkah and Kwanza. So through was the indoctrination that my nephew asked two years ago why we did not celebrate Hanukkah or Kwanza. He knew about Christmas, of course, but was understandably concerned that he was missing out on something, since the only holidays he heard about outside the home were absent from our family celebrations.
Some elementary-school teachers have chosen a less direct assault on Christmas, diminishing its importance by presenting it as merely one of an ever-growing list of seemingly equal and interchangeable holidays rather than obliterating all mention of it. Last year, a friend’s son participated in his elementary school’s “holiday concert.” In his school system, the great majority of students are white and Christian, yet only two Christmas carols were sung, and one of them was “Feliz Navidad.” This small concession to Christmas was more than outweighed by the two Kwanza songs, the two Hanukkah songs, the Ramadan song, and the Chinese New Year song the children also performed. (I suspect that all the non-Christmas songs are recent concoctions, written for such dreary occasions as contemporary public school “winter concerts.”)
Another illustration of the multicultural madness came from a friend whose daughter attends public school in another suburb that is overwhelmingly white and Christian. She brought home an exercise designed to help the children learn to tell time. The exercise featured the following “holiday schedule” for a “winter holiday party”:
Make Kwanzaa mkekas: 12:00
Make Christmas cookies: 12:30
Listen to a story about Ramadan:
Play the dreidel game: 1:30 p.m.
Break a piñata: 2:00 p.m.
Make Diwali powder designs: 2:30
p.m. Go on a Chinese New Year parade:
The sheer inanity of these examples (and of the countless others that could have been included) is striking. But the most important thing about the transformation of Christmas to “holiday” is how needless it was, and how it was the product not of “tolerance,” but of hatred, resentment, and envy.
The transformation was needless because the formerly exuberant American Christmas inflicted real harm on no one, while giving joy to many. Christmas in America was never marked by pogroms or expressions of hatred but by countless acts of charity and kindness. Much of the public celebration of Christmas was capable of being enjoyed by non-Christians as well as Christians, and almost everyone did enjoy at least some of it. I know non-Christians who enjoy Christmas specials, Christmas movies, Christmas music; I do not think these people are unique.
The multiculturalists justify their assault on Christmas by claiming that the public celebration of Christmas causes non-Christians to feel “left out.” I am skeptical of this claim; I suspect most people are not overwhelmed by the knowledge that others do not always believe as they do. But even if the multiculturalists are right, how much should we worry about those who feel left out by the public celebration of Christmas? We cannot forever shield non-Christians from the reality that they are a minority in America, and suppressing the observances of the majority seems a high price to pay to allow overly sensitive souls to live in a comfortable delusion. Of course, children should not be required to participate in school activities of which their parents disapprove, and local control of schools means that districts with large populations of non-Christians will probably have different December activities than districts that reflect the American norm. But a child who does not participate in a Christmas concert is no more excluded than a child whose parents do not allow him to go on a field trip or take a role in a school play. We do not respond to one form of exclusion by banning field trips or plays; we should not respond to the other by banning Christmas.
The multiculturalists, though, respond to the phony problem of exclusion by trying to ban Christmas because banning Christmas is what they are all about. They are animated by a hatred of Christianity, or of the West, or by sheer envy and resentment of the glories of a holiday they despise. If Christian children benefit from learning about Hanukkah and Kwanza and all the rest, shouldn’t non-Christian children benefit even more from learning about the holiday most of their countrymen observe? But, of course, the trend has been to load curricula with references to formerly obscure festivals, while assiduously minimizing and even eliminating references to Christmas.
The malice of the multiculturalists is revealed in the way they present the alternative holidays they so evidently prefer. Kwanza, Hanukkah, and all the rest are presented as faux-Christmases, even anti-Christmases, in order to compete with, diminish, and ultimately efface Christmas. If Hanukkah customarily fell in October, would anyone other than observant Jews even notice it?
Indeed, the versions of Kwanza and Hanukkah now being taught to millions of schoolchildren are fabrications. Kwanza, of course, is completely phony, the 1966 invention of black nationalist Maulana Karenga. But Hanukkah’s contemporary incarnation is a fabrication, too—the “Jewish Kwanzaa,” as Frederic Schwarz observed in last December’s American Heritage magazine. Traditionally, Hanukkah was a very minor festival, primarily for children, overshadowed theologically not only by the High Holy Days and Passover but also by Simchat Torah, Shavuot, and Sukkot, and surpassed by Purim as an occasion for celebration. Teaching children about Kwanza, rather than about the Christmas carols and spirituals developed by blacks, inculcates negative lessons about whites instead of positive ones about blacks. Teaching children about Hanukkah, rather than the beliefs that actually sustained Jews on their sometimes tragic and tumultuous historical journey, inculcates negative lessons about Christianity, not positive ones about Judaism.
Nor, despite the multiculturalists’ claims, are the anti-Christmases even remotely equal to the real thing. In theological terms, Christmas is the second most important feast in the Christian calendar. In practical terms, it has been the principal holiday of the world’s most creative civilization for over a millennium. It has inspired a profusion of art, architecture, literature, and music; a love of Christmas can lead to a deeper love of our whole civilization. Giotto never painted a Kwanza scene. Bach did not write a Hanukkah Oratorio, and Dickens did not pen A Ramadan Carol. And no one comparable to them did, either. Ultimately, we should be free to celebrate Christmas publicly and joyously, because it is a great holiday, and because it is our holiday—one of the crowning glories of the Western culture that gave birth to America and sustains us still.
Despite the undeniably depressing nature of the continuing and expanding assault against Christmas, I have not lost all hope. Most Americans still cherish Christmas, just as Chambers remembered Christmas with fondness even during his time as a Communist. The truth set Chambers free from communism, and the truth can set us free from multiculturalism. If we summon the courage to stand up for our beliefs, the words of the carol beloved by Dickens will once more ring true:
Now to the Lord sing praises.
All you within this place.
And with true love and brother
Each other now embrace.
This holy tide of Christmas,
All others doth deface.
O tidings of comfort and joy.
Comfort and joy.
O tidings of comfort and joy.
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