Jewish Journal


November 28, 2012

Religious or Cultural?



I was at the Safeway checkout counter this week, about to respond with my usual, “Yes, thanks” when asked whether I had found everything I need, when instead I blurted, “Oh, wait! Stamps!”

The cashier kindly charged me for stamps, reached into her drawer, and handed over a book. I glanced down as she placed them in my hand, while my mind registered the drawings of Santa and his reindeer. I inquired hopefully, “Do you have any that aren’t Christmas stamps? I’m Jewish.” Alas, the answer was, “Sorry, no.”

This isn’t a “War against Christmas.” If other people want to have Christmas stamps, Christmas Coca-Cola cans, and Christmas Oreos, that’s perfectly fine with me. But I don’t want them, and I don’t think they should be foisted on me against my will.

It does raise the question, however, of what the U.S. Postal Service is doing selling postage stamps with religious symbols on them. Does that not constitute promoting a religion, which is against the US Constitution?

Now, I know some of you will say Santa and his Reindeer are cultural, and not religious symbols. A cross is a religious symbol, and is displayed in most churches. But Santa?

Let me interject that I’m not one of those people who sees religion everywhere between November and January. In fact, I would be the first to argue that “Jingle Bells” is not a Christmas song. It does not mention anything that has anything to do with religion or Christmas. (Really, sing it in your head. Go ahead, do it now. I’ll wait.) …It’s just a sleighing song.

So, where did Santa come from? Some say “Santa Claus” is, if you will pardon the expression, a bastardization of “Saint Nicholas.” Are saints religious symbols? Only some religions have saints. Others, like Judaism, have none. Doesn’t that make a saint a religious symbol?

But let’s say you don’t buy into the theory that Santa is a Christian saint. Let’s say you think he’s just an imaginary jolly old man who gives gifts to kids. That would sound perfectly non-religious to me, if he showed up to dole out the gifts on New Year’s Day, or the kid’s birthdays, or anything like that. But he doesn’t. He comes one day only. On Christmas Eve.

You might tell me that many people give gifts on Christmas as a cultural act, not as a religious one. Therefore, you might say, Santa isn’t doing anything religious, and therefore he isn’t a religious symbol. He just happens to give gifts for Christmas. The alleged birthdate of Jesus, the alleged Christian savior. On the holiday that is, to religious Christians, on par with what the High Holy Days are for religious Jews.

It reminds me of the Jews who claim they aren’t religious, but who have a seder during Passover, light candles for Chanukkah, or light candles on Shabbat. These are religious acts. Let’s call them what they are. You may think of yourself as secular, but you are observing religious holidays. You are practicing religion.

So, no matter how secular some people claim Santa is, he is inextricably bound up in a Christian religious holiday which I, as a Jew, do not celebrate and do not want to promote. You use your reindeer stamps if you want to, but don’t expect to see me casually distributing what I consider to be Christian symbols. I’ll hold out for the next batch of American flag stamps, thank you very much.

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