Jennifer was my sixth grade girlfriend, a bright-eyed brunette with the sweetest smile I had ever seen. We talked incessantly on the playground, passed notes in class, and once, during a special school assembly, danced to "Sugar Sugar" by the Archies. As young as we were, our relationship probably fell at least one step short of puppy love, but "dog fetus love" doesn't have much of a ring to it, so there you go.
Christmastime was the best. We both belonged to the school choir, which allowed us time out of the classroom to practice the usual collection of non-challenging songs designed to test our meager pre-teen harmonies. With no seating chart to separate us, Jennifer and I could sit next to one other, holding hands beneath the long cafeteria tables. Our song was "The Twelve Days of Christmas", because it was endless and gave us ten glorious minutes of uninterrupted physical contact.
Then one day in early December, I floated into the cafeteria at the appointed time and found Jennifer gone. She was in class that morning and I couldn't figure out why she would possibly miss our time together. I cursed the turtle doves and the leaping lords and waited impatiently as choir practice suddenly turned interminable.
When I found Jennifer on the playground later in the day, I asked her what happened. She responded that her parents had pulled her out of choir. They had discovered their daughter singing songs about the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus and were apparently outraged that nobody had warned them. Jennifer, I discovered that afternoon, was Jewish.
Silently, I raged against my girlfriend, her parents, and a belief system that would deprive two kids of their first childish expressions of love over a bunch of stupid songs. How could it hurt anyone to sing about Christmas? Not once did it occur to me to reflect on the naked presumptuousness of a public school district blithely expecting a little Jewish girl to give musical praise to someone else's lord and savior.
A couple of months later, Jennifer's father got transferred and the family moved out to the Midwest. I was briefly devastated, but time heals quickly at that age and I moved on without too much effort. She and I exchanged letters for a few months, but there really wasn't much to say. She was there and I was here, and even in sixth grade I had a practical side that instructed me that this was a relationship without a future.
I thought about my sixth grade girlfriend many years later when talking to an acquaintance during the holiday season. Alison (unlike Jennifer, not her real name) spoke resentfully of the Christmas celebrations she was forced to endure in her northeastern public elementary school. She, too, was Jewish and she still felt the sense of exclusion nearly two decades later. One month out of every year, she said, she was reminded by teachers and classmates alike that she was different. Not just different, but less worthy, an outsider in her own hometown.
Allison, and Jennifer's parents for that matter, were not at war with Christmas. They had spent their entire lives around Christians and probably even threw a few coins into the Salvation Army pot as they passed the bell ringer at the mall. They undoubtedly knew just about every Christmas carol by heart and may have even mindlessly hummed along with one or two of them when they played on the radio.
But they didn't expect their public schools to treat Christmas, and particularly the religious observance of Christmas, as pre-eminent and universal. They did not expect to be treated as aliens within walls that their tax dollars helped to construct. Nor, as Alison pointed out, were they necessarily mollified by the 10-1 ratio of Christmas to Chanukah songs performed by some of the more progressive institutions.
Aggressive religious conservatives like to say that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Even if this were not hopelessly ahistorical, it would still miss the—pardon the pun—fundamental point. The Constitution, for all its faults, was a document intended first and foremost to protect numerical minorities. Majorities need no protection. Sometimes, however, majorities forget that their views and practices are not held unanimously, and the Constitution is there to remind them of that fact.
Really, though, this shouldn't even be a constitutional concern. It should be a matter of simple courtesy. In the public places where we all gather, in the spaces that we share with one another, why would we want to impose our traditions and beliefs on our friends and neighbors? Why would we not want to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible?
When we choose to say "Happy Holidays" we are not demeaning Christmas; we are simply recognizing the diversity of our American family. When we remove manger scenes from our city parks, it is not out of disrespect for Christianity, but rather out of respect for everyone else who works, lives, and pays taxes within our various jurisdictions. We still have Christmas in our families, in our homes, in our churches, and, where appropriate, in our hearts. When did that become not enough?
Christmas is a celebration. That some people have chosen to turn it into a wedge issue is a sad perversion of both the holiday and its meaning. It is these culture warriors, always ready to politicize and divide, who have themselves determined that nothing is, at long last, truly sacred. First, they created a fictional War on Christmas, and then, by turning the holiday into a bludgeon, became its biggest enemies. They need to stand down before they do any further damage.
So Happy Holidays, Jennifer, wherever you are. I still think of you when I hear the Archies.