Last night, NBC aired SNL Presents: A Very Gilly Christmas, a holiday special whose title made me nervous. I love Kristen Wiig; I do not love Gilly, who like many SNL characters that “break out” for some unknown reason, is one drawn-out, not especially funny joke over and over and over. But the special did feature a lot of SNL Christmas material, including Robert Smigel’s brilliant, Motown-style “Christmas for the Jews” video, above.
And it couldn’t have re-run at a better time, since it comes in the midst of a mini-controversy about the Jewish pop-culture influence on Christmas, spurred by, of all people, Garrison Keillor.
The Minnesota ahem-humorist—who once inspired Homer Simpson to order his TV to “be more funny!”—wrote a cranky essay complaining, among other things, about the Jews messing up Christmas by writing Christmas songs:
If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn “Silent Night” and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism, and we Christians have stood for it long enough. 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 dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.
Just in time, today’s New York Times includes an op-ed by musician Michael Feinstein, who recalls performing a holiday concert 10 years ago and receiving complaints that his performance—which referenced the fact that Jews like Irving Berlin wrote some of Christians’ favorite Santa-time songs—was “too Jewish.”
Keillor’s essay, of course, falls right in the midst of the now-annual ritual, familiar to anyone who watches Fox News, of commentators complaining about “the War on Christmas”—a war that, if you turn on your TV or radio or go to the mall or basically walk out your door, you will see has, yes, pretty much succeeded at obliterating any references to Christmas in our culture altogether. (Yes, that was sarcasm. If you watch 30 Rock, you’ll recall that the Jews are big on sarcasm.)
OK. Generally I hate the idea that a person has to be of a certain religious persuasion to have a legitimate opinion on religious issues. That said, I’m sure someone is going to want to know, so: my mother is Jewish, and my father was Catholic. This makes me matrilineally Jewish. I went to Catholic Church with my father as a kid; I grew away from the religion and now consider myself culturally Jewish, though I don’t much practice any religion. I married a Jewish woman, and our kids are Jewish; my siblings married Christians and their families are Christian. We celebrate Hanukkah at home and Christmas when we visit my relatives.
So—call me whatever you want. It’s complicated. As is our society. As are, culturally, pretty much all of our holidays, including Christmas. And folks like Keillor—who after all used the word “dreck” to criticize Jewish co-optation (the chutzpah!)—should relax about it.
Certainly, Christmas is a religious holiday, which Keillor and anyone else is free to celebrate entirely religiously if they want to. (Speaking of which, neither I nor any Jewish person I know really cares if you wish us “Merry Christmas.” Unless you’re deliberately being a passive-aggressive jerk about it, and even then we have bigger problems to worry about, thanks.)
But Christmas is an awfully odd holiday over which to get exercised about co-optation. Since—as we celebrate it today anyway—it is partly the product of co-optation. It’s not known precisely what date Jesus was born; his birth has been assigned various dates and some scholars believe it was somewhere around April.
(Incidentally—and you can tell me if my Catholic upbringing is incorrect here—I was always taught that, religiously, Christmas is a less significant holiday than Easter, since Christianity is based in the resurrection of Christ. Likewise, Hanukkah is far from the most important Jewish holiday—but it’s in December, so what are you going to do?)
In any case, Christmas was assigned its date in December to fall around the time of existing, popular festivals at the time of the winter solstice. Many Christmas traditions—such as the display of evergreen and holly—are also held in common with solstice traditions.
There’s nothing wrong with that, and it doesn’t make Christmas any more or less legitimate. It simply points up the fact that a lot of people, of varying cultures and religions, like to have a party at the end of the year. Christmas built on this universal attraction, to the point that it became the dominant end-of-the-year party: and as a result, it’s a big secular holiday for some people and a big religious one for others.
Not for nothing, those famous Christmas songs written by Jews—”White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Rudolph” and so on—fall decidedly on the more secular side of the Christmas-song spectrum. So underlying Keillor’s complaint (and, I suspect, The War on Christmas) is, I think, a more basic problem with the secularization of Christmas. But however funny it was meant to be, Keillor’s anti-Jew complaint is an ugly way of expressing it.
People who want to keep their religious holidays religious are free to do so. But the impulse to celebrate at the end of the year is big enough to share, and I think we can all be big enough to share it. So merry Christmas. And happy last day of Hanukkah. And pass the General Tso’s chicken.