I remember when, several years ago, the local government of my small hometown proposed renaming the town Christmas tree.
They decided to call it the “holiday tree” because they thought that would be more inclusive to those of us who did not celebrate Christmas. Their plan backfired. Many in town saw it as yet another example of the so-called War on Christmas at the hands of us non-Christians. It was clearly a Christmas tree, they said, so why not call it one? And some of us in town who are Jewish (and whom, along with other non-Christians, the well-intended gesture was supposed to benefit) found ourselves agreeing with them. To show support for a holiday tree just wasn’t worth the bickering, the scathing editorials in the local paper, the suddenly-uncomfortable conversations with neighbors. It was Christmas, and we all knew it. Best to leave it at that.
I was reminded of this culture clash when I learned of two new Hanukkah-themed additions to the Hallmark Channel’s annual movie programming block, “Countdown to Christmas”: “Holiday Date,” premiering Saturday, and “Double Holiday,” airing on Dec. 21. The titles were the first clue that I would probably be disappointed by a halfhearted depiction of the Jewish holiday — nearly every other Hallmark Countdown to Christmas movie in history seems to have the word “Christmas” in its name. (For instance, “A Cheerful Christmas” and “Christmas Under Wraps.”)
My worries were confirmed after viewing both films; they are just Christmas movies featuring Jewish characters. “Double Holiday” follows Chris and Rebecca (by their names, you don’t need me to tell you that one celebrates Christmas and the other, Hanukkah), co-workers attempting to plan the company Christmas party. As with any typical Christmas movie, the backdrop to every scene is laden with dazzling wreaths and ornaments — except for moments when Rebecca is with her outlandish, yarmulke-wearing, kvelling Jewish relatives. Rebecca is usually dressed in blue; Chris, in red or green.
“Holiday Date” is even worse. A woman named Brooke hires a Jewish actor, Joel, to pose as her boyfriend when she travels home for Christmas, and when her family gets to know him, they grow increasingly suspicious. “He seems nice enough, but there’s just something that just isn’t right,” Brooke’s father says. “He’s a bit of an odd duck.”
There are many problems with the films themselves, but the fact that they are being billed as a “celebration of both Hanukkah and Christmas” is perhaps the worst of all. These are Christmas movies through and through, with Hanukkah portrayed as an afterthought. In both movies, the Jewish protagonists are clueless and miserably new to Christmas — Rebecca can’t decorate a tree and Joel doesn’t even know the words to “Deck the Halls” — and are taught by their generous Christian hosts to fully embrace the holiday.
In turn, their Christmas-loving counterparts learn a little bit about dreidels, latkes and how to light the Hanukkah candles. By the end the pairs fall for each other — and the Jewish characters easily fall in love with Christmas.
Bill Abbott, the chief executive of Crown Media Family Networks, the Hallmark Channel’s parent company, seems to understand quite well that his movies are portraying Christmas as a sort of blanket holiday that others in the season can fit into.
“I think Christmas has become almost a secular type of holiday more than Hanukkah, which really does have more of a religious feel,” he said during a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter. (He used Kwanzaa as another example of a holiday that, like Hanukkah, would be “hard” to create a movie around because of its “religious point of view.” The pan-African celebration, unlike Christmas, is a secular holiday.)
Hallmark is falling into the same trap as my small-town government all those years ago: Instead of helping to make non-Jewish Americans more comfortable with Jewish traditions — which is what true inclusion looks like — they are trying to make Christmas more comfortable for Jews.
And that is missing the point. For most of us, to grow up Jewish in the United States means to learn to navigate a world in which we’re constantly reminded of our difference.
Part of this process has long involved finding our way through the frenzied Christmas season. Don’t get me wrong: Christmastime is beautiful. It’s hard not to enjoy walking through the decked-out streets of New York in December, when the city is bathed in color and music and the smell of an impending snowfall. For many Jews and non-Jews alike, the aesthetics are often delightful.
But for some who don’t celebrate, the most wonderful time of the year can feel like a never-ending deluge, in every store, on every channel and at every turn, for more than a month, year after year. Worried that our children would feel left out, years ago many Jews began giving gifts for Hanukkah, which is celebrated around the same time as Christmas; and just like that, a relatively minor Jewish holiday became the most famous of them all.
While Hallmark’s attempts to include us are appreciated, the way in which they’ve done so, like my town’s “holiday tree,” is unnecessary and counterproductive. In fact, in an increasingly anti-Semitic world, I worry that these things end up causing more harm than good — because whenever something quintessentially Christmas is replaced, reduced or renamed, it fuels the fire of those who believe in the meaningless War on Christmas and seems to worsen people’s view of those of us the change was meant to “help” in the first place.
Instead of homogenizing — interrupting a traditional Christmas movie lineup, or changing the names of trees and parades — we should be focusing on the less-overt and more-meaningful ways we can celebrate our differences and promote understanding. Around the holidays, that could be as simple as setting aside a moment to have a family discussion about the different holidays people celebrate, why they’re important and why it’s essential that we are allowed to celebrate different holidays in the first place.
At school, teachers should not single out their students who don’t celebrate Christmas — instead, they should give these students the chance to tell the class more about their family traditions during another, more important time of year.
When it comes to movies and TV, there are plenty of Jewish stories to be told and jokes to be made without homogenizing. Hallmark could look toward examples like the cartoon series “Rugrats,” whose Hanukkah and Passover specials in the 1990s have long been lauded for their use of humor and allegory to make the holidays more accessible for all viewers. Or “Arthur,” another children’s program, which on several occasions has shed light on some of the conflicting decisions Jewish children might face growing up in this world of difference — like whether to fast on Yom Kippur when all of your friends are invited to a pizza party, or, in an episode called “Arthur’s Perfect Christmas,” how to explain the true meaning of Hanukkah (besides the gift-giving) to a friend who doesn’t celebrate.
The annual “Saturday Night Live” Christmas special is filled with sketches from over the years like “Christmastime for the Jews,” which hilariously exaggerates what happens on the single day of the year when Jewish people seem to be the only ones in town. None of these cases involve Jewish people learning to celebrate Christmas — they do, however, use the many different holidays as an opportunity to show and celebrate our differences.
Unlike Rebecca in “Double Holiday” or Joel in “Holiday Date,” American Jews don’t need to be brought into Christmas any more than we already have been. Each one of us has his or her own way of appreciating and getting through the season. More important, we want to be respected and accepted for our own worth and for what sets us apart, now and year-round.
The post Hallmark Thinks Jewish People Have No Clue What Christmas Is appeared first on New York Times.