Carlyn’s question lingers, as any good question does: “Frank, is Christmas a religious holiday?” she asked.
It was one of those moments when I knew I had to give a straight answer. I couldn’t turn it back to her and ask, “What do you think.” She’s nine. She wants an answer.
I wondered what she has been told in Hebrew school, or what she and her Jewish friends talked about, or what she and her Christian friends talked about. So I answered carefully, but directly. “No,” I said. Then I waited the appropriate three seconds, while she digested the unexpected answer. “It’s a cultural holiday.“
She responded, “But it’s called Christ-mass, right? Doesn’t that mean Christian, and isn’t it a holiday about the birthday of Jesus Christ? I think it’s religious.“
She had a good point. She pushed it. I wanted to tell her that the word Christ is simply the Greek way of saying the Hebrew word for Messiah. It’s not Jesus’ last name.
She knows that Santa is a mythological character representing the virtue of generosity. She loves Christmas. But now she’s confronted with the Jewish response to the Americanization of Christmas. Many Jews in our culture feel accosted by Christmas. It can be overwhelming, especially if you think of it as a religious holiday. I don’t. I want to support her Jewish education by providing a necessary balance. It’s easy to get carried away with one’s religious identity, to become separated from the ‘other,’ and defensive.
Christmas, for me, is a spiritual holiday. It’s about generosity; the root meaning, from the Latin genus, birth, through the French genereux, is noble birth. The birth of a high moral character, including generosity, courage and kindness requires the fertilization of those early seeds of love. Giving ennobles. The good receiver helps the giver.
Christmas, at its best, nourishes the heart of our spiritual life. It provides sustenance for the soul. Like the body, the human spirit must be nourished, trained and exercised to promote its development and to maintain fitness.
We know about the other side of this extravagant season. We know the dangers. Over-indulgence leads to an attitude of entitlement—what we used to call being spoiled. And we need to be sensitive to those who think of it as a religious holiday in a sectarian sense—Christians who want it kept holy, and Jews who are force fed.
But we must not be so cautious that we deny ourselves the benefits of the season. As Unitarians we want to take the best in this season, nourish our children’s sense of dignity and worth, and make this a better world.
That’s what religion is truly about. Enjoy!