Last week, I attended the “Winter Concert” at my children’s public elementary school. It was a very good concert. The kids – all 75 of them – performed beautifully. They remembered the words, sang in time and in tune, and showed a great deal of poise.
The only problem was the music. There were two African harvest songs; an American spiritual that repeatedly mentioned a Mary and a baby, but stopped short of giving any hints as to which Mary and which baby; a Hebrew song and a Yiddish song; two Muzak songs that seemed vaguely to deal with generic uplift themes; and a disco homage to Santa that, as with the spiritual, carefully avoided any reference to Christmas. It was rather like a concert in code, with the initiated meant to understand that, in fact, this was a Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah concert, rather than a mere “winter” musical soiree.
It was a far cry from the “Christmas” concerts of my youth, a youth that was also spent in public schools. Back in those days – spanning the mid 60s through the mid 70s – the weeks before Christmas saw us singing all the Christmas classics, both old and new: Oh, Holy Night, Silent Night, Little Town of Bethlehem, Oh Come, All Ye Faithful, Deck the Halls, Christmas is Coming, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, just to name a few of the songs that delighted my friends and me as public school children.. We also sang Hanukkah songs that actually mentioned Hanukkah, songs such as Oh, Hanukkah! or The Dreidel Song. Kwanzaa songs were missing only because, in those far away days, this holiday had not yet received any prominence outside of small sections of the African American community.
As a child, I loved the musical feast that came with winter. Just as the days grew oppressively short and cold, we were inundated with beautiful, celebratory songs. The children in my school, Jewish and Christian alike, felt bound together by songs of light and hope in a season of darkness. Instead of being dull and drab, this was a most exciting time of year, visually and aurally beautiful. I felt connected both to the history of all humans – people trying to bring light and meaning to the days when the sun seems so distant – and to the history of my country, which, whether one likes it or not, is imbued with Christian thought, music and iconography.
By the way, did I mention that I’m Jewish? According to today’s experts and ACLU activists, as a Jewish child who was being inundated by these Christmas songs and images, many of which were explicitly religious, I should have felt, at best, marginalized and, at worst, coerced or insulted. Maybe I was exceptionally obtuse, but I never felt any of these emotions. To my mind, the songs were offered as something to share and enjoy, and our smilingly practical elementary school teachers never indicated any preference for one faith over another.
As for me, I was delighted to share in the Christmas holiday with my friends in the public forum of school. I caroled their songs, and delighted in my ability to draw Christmas trees with a certain panache (one of my few artistic accomplishments, I might add). When I went home, I lit the Hanukkah candles with every bit as much pleasure. Rather than feeling slighted, I felt doubly blessed.
How different it is today. The schools are frightened of the parents, the parents are afraid to give offense to each other, and the children are denied the excitement of public celebrations of a unique set of holidays, concerned with wonderful abstract concepts such as faith, bravery, and hope. Instead, we’ve entered a grim Seinfeldian “Festivus” world, where joyous winter celebrations of light and song are reduced to the Airing of Grievances (usually identity based, along the lines of “they’re discriminating against me this season because I’m [fill in the blank with your choice of Jewish, Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, Kwanzaan, Wiccan, etc."]). How much better, I’ve always thought, whether one is Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist or Buddhist, to eschew the public school effort to gather around a minimalist and meaningless aluminum Festivus pole, and instead to share in the bounty of America’s many faiths.