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Atheism, Culture, Religion

Holidays, Culture, and Assimilation

No matter which side of the fence you live on, there’s a good chance you’ve found yourself caught in the middle of a “Holiday War.”  Maybe you’re an atheist who’s tired of hearing “Merry Christmas.”  Maybe you’re a Christian trying to preserve the “true meaning of the season” against the pagans, atheists, and Jews.  It’s a big mess, to be sure.  And people on all sides seem firmly entrenched in their ideas.

I dug up an old article by Douglas Shaw, a semi-practicing Jew.  (READ IT HERE.)  It’s an interesting take on Christmas from a slightly different perspective.   I believe we can learn a lot about ourselves as non-believers by thinking critically about this Jewish point of view.

I’m a Jew in his thirties who doesn’t give “Hanukkah Presents”. I give Christmas Presents. In exactly 8 paragraphs, I am going to use the phrase “ignorant, spineless, and evil” to describe the practice of giving “Hanukkah Presents”.

Well, right off the bat, I have a problem with Mr. Shaw.  I’ll save my issues with “ignorant” and “spineless” for later.  Let’s go with the obvious — calling the giving of presents evil is just plain divisive.  It’s also calling on some sort of meta-narrative to justify claims of superiority.  It’s saying, “I’m better than you in a real, objective way because I don’t give Hanukkah pressents.”  Not exactly endearing, is it?

He goes on to give a brief and snarky description of the historical significance of Hanukkah.  In a nutshell, a lady named Hannah watched her five children get butchered by a Greek soldier rather than eat pig meat.  Then she got killed, too.  In retaliation, the Macabees drove the Greeks away, and a mythical miracle lamp burned for 8 days when it should have only burned for one.

From my non-theist perspective, this story — if it’s true — is a great example of people doing crazy things for religious belief.  Not eating pig is worth six deaths?  Really?  But that’s another topic entirely, so I won’t belabor the point.  Nor will I dwell on the morality of celebrating such dogmatism.  I’m more interested in Mr. Shaw’s justification for pissing on everyone’s holiday gift-giving traditions.

“Hanukkah presents” are ignorant. They are not part of the holiday. There are many pretty little traditions that come with this minor holiday that do not involve buying Pokemon cards. For example, it is customary to play a gambling (Yes! Teaching kiddies to gamble!) game called “dreidel.” Everybody antes, and then you spin a top, and put in the pot or take out of the pot, depending on what side of the dreidel shows. Since we don’t want children to gamble for real money, we give them some candy to put in the pot. Or Hanukkah Gelt, which is coins made out of chocolate. So, yes, kids do get toy dreidels and chocolate coins and such, but that is not the same thing as a Nintendo 256 game system, wrapped up in paper that is any-color-but-red-and-green-because-that-would-be-Christmassy.


So… While Hannah and her sons were fasting from pork and being run through with swords, they had little chocolate coins and played gambling games?  Is that what I’m hearing?  Or, is it more accurate to say the tradition of the dreidel and chocolate candy became accepted over time as “the way things are done”?

This isn’t a small point.  Even in defending his sacred traditions, Shaw has shot himself in the foot.  He’s made a distinction between the way peoples past traditions differ from today’s traditions and assumed the ultimate correctness of the old way.  Never mind that the old way was just as much a conglomeration of cultural ideas as the new way.  It’s just older.  And that makes it more correct.

“Hanukkah presents” are spineless. Seriously, why do you think that Jews give their loved ones “Hanukkah Presents”? Because they like to give gifts? If that was the reason, then they would be given on Rosh Hashanah (The very important Jewish New Year), or Sukkoth (A very beautiful major Jewish holiday) or Purim (A very festive major Jewish Holiday). No. They are given on the holiday closest to Christmas. Why? Because we want to be like the gentiles.

Oh boy.  Where do we start?  Yeah, a lot of people like giving gifts on the holiday season.  And yes, a lot of people want to be like everyone around them.  Again, there’s a divisive, superior air to this criticism.  “We’re better than everyone else, and it’s inherently wrong to give an inch to anything that isn’t our culture’s way of doing things.”  And when someone like me has the gall to speak out against this kind of thing, we’re usually shouted down as antisemitic.  Or we’re accused of not accepting other cultures.

“Hanukkah Presents” are evil. Now, I’m not the kind of person who uses the epithet “evil” lightly. Well, that’s not true. I use it pretty often. But THIS time I mean it. Here’s why: Hanukkah is about being brave, and refusing to be forced to be like the gentiles. And what are “Hanukkah Presents” about? About knuckling under and being exactly like the Christians. And don’t go rationalizing…  celebrating the “Jews would rather die than assimilate” holiday by imitating Christians is just ethically abhorrent.

Ok.  Here’s the crux of the matter.  Let’s talk about assimilation.

Pardon me for picking on Jews — I could be talking about Muslims just as easily.  But Jewish history is full of conflicts that essentially boiled down to “No, we will not accept any assimilation.”  Many Jewish people are fiercely proud of their traditions, and in many of the more conservative circles, they are staunchly opposed to modifying them in any way whatsoever, even when culture passes them by, and even when it makes them hated and persecuted.  Their ways are sanctioned by God.  They are the chosen people, history be damned.

But the thing is, culture is assimilation.  When two people live together, they learn from each other, and each adopts some elements of the other culture.  The same goes for countries, ethnic groups, and entire civilizations.  Here’s a good example:

The dreidel game originally had nothing to do with Hanukkah; it has been played by various people in various languages for many centuries.  (LINK)

In America, most of us know that virtually nothing in the current Christmas celebration is “originally Christian.”  The tree, decorations, Santa, gifts, wreaths, elves, and even the date are all assimilated from other traditions.  Just like the dreidel and gambling games were assimilated into Hanukkah.  Assimilation is nothing more and nothing less than the movement of cultural history.  It is a normal and natural part of life, and more than that, it is the explicit and implicit observation that other people are just as human as we are.

When we adopt anything from another culture, we are giving that culture a certain stamp of approval.  We’re recognizing that our way is not the only way, and that we are open to change and novelty.  We’re becoming one with the process of growth and change.  We are dynamic.

But gentle readers, this same line of logic is why I’m jumping off the “War on Christmas” bandwagon.  I get what my fellow atheists are doing.   And in principle, I agree with them that there’s no reason why Christians should get to hijack the end of the year and institutionalize it all across the nation.

But I’m sending my mom a Christmas gift this year.  For the first time in many years.  And I’ll probably get one for my best friends, too.  Because I care about them, and it feels good to give gifts.  There won’t be any Baby Jesus on the wrapping paper.  Maybe I won’t even wrap the gifts.  I won’t be having a tree this year, but maybe one year I’ll get the hankering.  I’m going to do the holidays my way.  And I just don’t think I’m going to feel guilty if my atheist friends start accusing me of doing it the wrong way.

I don’t want to fall into the same trap as poor Douglas Shaw.  I don’t want to be the guy to say it’s wrong to want to be part of my country’s culture.  Holidays are what holidays mean.  And to me, Christmas means a damn fine meal, maybe a small gift or two, and a nice scotch and soda.  So… I guess I owe a “thank you” to the Christians, the Pagans, the Scotch, and the French.  ‘Cause I’ll be damned if I’m cooking traditional English food when I could cook French food.  I’m taking what I like best about the cultures that gave us Christmas.  I’m ditching what I don’t like.  I’m assimilating.  And I promise, I won’t get mad at you if you do Christmas differently than I do.

Happy Holidays.



2 thoughts on “Holidays, Culture, and Assimilation

  1. Hamby, this is a really, really great post. I give you enormous credit for figuring it out in your own way. I also feel that assimilation means being inclusive in a way. Separatism feels like a judgment. I understand why my SIL won’t eat off my plates at Passover, but the truth is, it does separate us. It’s hard not to feel judged or inferior in that circumstance. Personally, I’d rather add than subtract. There is plenty of room for all of our traditions, and it’s such a bounty that we really can pick and choose what we like best.

    Posted by Susan Walsh | December 20, 2010, 9:51 pm
  2. Well said Hamby. If you haven’t read this already, take a gander:

    Posted by Tom Verenna | December 21, 2010, 3:07 am

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