In December 2009, after accusing Unitarian Universalists in Cambridge, MA of “spiritual piracy and cultural elitism” over their humanist rewriting of Silent Night, Garrison Keillor turned his ire on the Jews:
And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year. Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that drek. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow the shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No we didn’t. Christmas is a Christian holiday—if you’re not in the club, then buzz off.
Mr. Keillor is right about Christians not writing Rosh HaShanah doggerel, but wrong about Christians not appropriating Jewish culture. First there is Mr. Keillor’s own use of the Yiddish word drek (filth); second, the ubiquitous Passover Seders during Holy Week;* and third the evangelical embrace of the State of Israel not as the homeland of the Jews but as our burial ground when the return of the Prince of Peace necessitates the slaughter of all but 144,000 Jews (Revelation 7); God out doing Hitler 2 to 1.
But I do sympathize with Mr. Keillor. To be blunt: the reason Christians have to work so hard to put Christ back in Christmas is because we modern Jews did such a good job of taking him out of it.
To be fair, however, it is important to note that while it is true that we reinvented Christmas without Christ in the 20th century, it was we who invented Christmas with Christ in the 1st century. We aren’t appropriating a foreign culture, we are editing our own.
Desiring an America free of antisemitism, Jewish songwriters and movie producers imagined Christmas as a secular celebration of love and generosity free from religion and theology in which everyone could feel at home.
Jews wrote The Christmas Waltz (Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne), Silver Bells (Jay Livingston and Ray Evans), Winter Wonderland (Felix Bernard), Santa Baby (Joan Ellen Javits and Philip Springer), Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow (Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne), The Christmas Song/Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire (Mel Torme and Bob Wells), and White Christmas (Irving Berlin) among others.
It isn’t just that these songs are sappy, it is that they are Christ–free. Jews wrote Christmas songs that they could sing! They imagined a Christmas that was American rather than Christian; a Christmas about Santa Baby (Joan Ellen Javits and Philip Springer) rather than Baby Jesus (Matthew and Luke). We did the same thing with Christmas movies.
Think of Miracle on 34th St. The backdrop to the story is the competing Manhattan department stores, Macy’s and Gimbel’s, both Jewish owned and run. The movie isn’t about belief in Christ, but belief in Santa Claus.
Think of It’s a Wonderful Life. On the verge of suicide, George Baily is saved not by Christ but by Clarence Odbody, an angel trying to earn his wings. George never turns to God, let alone Jesus, and it isn’t God’s love for George that saves him, but that of his family, friends, and neighbors.
But don’t imagine that the Jewish struggle with messiahs is new. Here are two first century Jewish approaches to the messiah. The first comes from Luke 2:8-14:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men. (KJV)
The second is from Luke’s contemporary, Yohanan ben Zakkai (30 BE to 90 CE):
If you’re planting a tree and the whole town calls to you saying, “Come quickly, the Messiah has arrived!” first finish your planting, then go greet the messiah, (Avot d’Rabbi Natan, 31B).
Remember both of these texts were written by Jews around the same time. The first expresses belief: the messiah has come. The second expresses skepticism: maybe the messiah has come, maybe not, in either case first plant the tree. The first is about salvation—the messiah has arrived; the second about hope—eventually the tree will yield fruit, even if we are no longer alive to see it.
I prefer hope to salvation. According to Erich Fromm “hope means to be ready at every moment for that which is not yet born, and yet not become desperate if there is a no birth in our lifetime,” (Erich Fromm, The Revolution of Hope, 1968, p. 9). To live with hope is to cultivate the attitude of the biblical Hinnenni, “Yes! I’m here!”
This is what I imagine the Jewish Mary saying when she finds herself pregnant: Hinnenni, I’m here, how can I serve? This is what I imagine the Jewish Joseph saying when she finds his betrothed carrying a child not his own: Hinnenni, I’m here, how can I serve? This is what I imagine the Jewish Jesus saying in the Garden of Gethsemane: Hinnenni, I’m here, how can I serve? This is what I hope everyone who hears the Christmas story says: Hinnenni, I’m here, how can I serve?
My Christmas is all about hope rather than salvation.
Hope is an open system, salvation a closed one.
Hope is an attitude, a readiness to be “a blessing to all the families of the earth,” human and otherwise (Genesis 12:3). Salvation is a reward earned by believing in the saving power of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Hope is open to all; salvation is for the few alone: “For while many are called, few are chosen,” (Matthew 22:14).
Hope is perennial; salvation parochial.
Parochial Christmas is salvific and closed: if you aren’t part of the club, buzz off. Perennial Christmas is hopeful and open.
Parochial Christmas is about one who came and will come again; Perennial Christmas is about waiting for and hoping in that which may never happen.
Parochial Christmas is certain; Perennial Christmas is uncertain.
Parochial Christmas’ hope is in God; Perennial Christmas’ hope is in humanity.
Parochial Christmas’ faith is in another world; Perennial Christmas’ faith is in this one.
Parochial Christmas focuses on a God who became human; Perennial Christmas focuses on the human capacity to become divine.
Parochial Christmas anticipates the truth that “He has risen,” (Matthew 28:6). Perennial Christmas anticipates that we are rising, even in times of darkness, confusion, and uncertainty.
Whichever you prefer, hope or salvation, the parochial or the perennial, the Christmas of Garrison Keillor or the Christmas of George Baily—I wish you a Merry Christmas.
*I wrote one of these myself with my friend Rev. Mike Smith. It is called Let Us Break Bread Together (Paraclete Press).