What Would Jesus Do About the Menorah?

Originally appeared in the Fort Collins Forum

January 2007
Eric Fried

I wasn’t going to discuss the magic nine-headed candelabra. I swore I wasn’t. But when I got a letter from my Aunt Marilyn (no, not THAT Marilyn) in Florida asking why Fort Collins was displaying a Christmas tree but no menorah, I knew I could avoid it no longer. All the good publicity generated by Money Magazine anointing us the best place to live in the US? Forget it. It’s gone. Wiped clean. Now we’re known around the country as that city where Jews (and other non-Christians) are not welcome. This is probably not what the City Council intended, but it’s the result of their cowardly decision nonetheless.

As readers of this column know by now, I was brought up Jewish. So I must admit that Chanukkah is really no big deal. In the pantheon of Jewish holidays, it’s not even in the top five. Chanukkah commemorates one of history’s first successful guerilla insurgencies, as the Jews fought off one of an endless series of oppressive imperial powers, with miraculous intervention by The Big Guy Himself (or so the story goes). As with everything Middle Eastern, it all boils down to oil, and so we light oil lamps (menorahs) for eight nights and eat oily potato pancakes and doughnuts. And as for dreidels…I forget. Ask my Aunt Marilyn.

Here in America’s melting pot, to make Jewish kids feel included around Christmas, we upgraded Chanukkah’s importance. In a kinder, gentler era that is only a fading memory, acknowledging ALL the winter holidays was considered a simple act of generosity quite in keeping with the Christmas spirit of goodwill towards all.
But now, with the likes of Faux News trumpeting its trumped-up “War on Christmas,” even saying Happy Holidays rather than Merry Christmas is regarded as heresy. The religious partisans claim “Christmas is the reason for the season,” and urge their cohorts to stop pretending we are celebrating anything but Christmas.

As usual, the zealots’ grasp of history is a bit fuzzy. No one knows for sure when Jesus was born, but it was probably in early Spring (when shepherds would have been out in the fields with their flocks). The date of December 25 was chosen by Pope Julius I’s marketing geniuses to re-brand the long-established Roman midwinter Saturnalia celebration. Coming soon after the shortest day of the year, December 25 was celebrated as the “birth of the sun,” so it was just a short hop to “birth of The Son.” Christmas, Chanukkah, Winter Solstice all celebrate the rebirth of light in the season of greatest darkness. THAT’S the real reason for the season.

Except for Councilman Kurt Kastein, who let the cat out of the bag by saying as a Christian he saw no problem in having the City promote his preferred holiday, the rest of the council took refuge behind a legal fig leaf. Relying on the kind of hair-splitting legalisms Jesus himself railed against, they cherry picked a Supreme Court decision that claims some Christmas symbols are secular and some are religious. It’s true that bringing an evergreen tree inside began as a northern European pagan custom, but it has since come to be inextricably linked to the Christ-mass and no other religion. That particular decision ranks as one of the dumbest ever made by the Supremes, right up there with ruling that money is speech, corporations are persons, and African-Americans are not full human beings. In any case, the Supremes have also ruled that a menorah (clearly a religious symbol) CAN be displayed with other cultural symbols without violating the bedrock constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

So what’s the problem? If we allow the menorah, would that “open the floodgates”? What floodgates? Are local Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and celebrants of Kwanzaa marching on City Hall to get their winter holiday symbols installed too? And if they do, why not let them? Where is the harm? Why not welcome everyone? This city belongs to all of us equally. That’s what makes America great. After all, if Chanukkah was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for Fort Collins.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.