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One Jew’s perspective: the 'War on Christmas'

As a rabbi, I have to admit something that I don't normally tell people. I really love Christmas.

While it's not the holiday of my people or of my religion, I appreciate it as an observer.

As a child growing up outside of Cleveland, the music, the good cheer, and the wash of Christmas lights in my neighborhood had a tangible impact on my mood. The Christmas spirit seemed to rub off.

One of my greatest surprises during the first winter that I lived in Israel, was just how much I missed the Christmas season.

And then, a few weeks ago, I helped my next-door neighbor in with her Christmas tree. As we set up the freshly cut tree in her living room, it all became clear to me.

As someone who loves ritual and religion, I absolutely appreciate the beauty and elegance of the tradition of bringing a fragrant green tree into your home during the darkest days of the winter.

I tell you all of this as a way of debunking one of the false assumptions about the so-called "War on Christmas": that everyone who does not celebrate Christmas wants to ruin it for those who do. But my experience and that of most of the Jewish and other non-Christian people I know contradicts this assumption.

Just because Christmas is not a Jewish holiday, the season itself is not offensive to me in any way! In fact, my experience has been wonderful.

I can enjoy and appreciate Christmas with the same degree of joy and curiosity that I can enjoy and appreciate the art, music, and food of other cultures.

With that said, I want to try to reframe the debate because I think the rhetoric tends to miss the point. The problem does not lie in what people say to customers in the checkout lines. And the solution is not political correctness or the creation of a sanitized American culture that is devoid of those qualities that make our diverse culture so amazing in an effort to never offend anyone.

Speaking for myself, I can say emphatically that a "Merry Christmas" here or there does not offend me in the slightest.

There is however a tipping point when those well-intentioned expressions of holiday cheer can become more hurtful.

The key difference for me is between an individual, who earnestly wishes a non-Christian a "Merry Christmas" and a system that willfully ignores the fact that we live in a diverse world.

And herein lies the problem with all of the over-blown rhetoric around the "War on Christmas." It distracts from the real issues. Our focus should not be on whether or not to say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays," but on working together in fellowship to build a diverse and civil American society where people don't feel invisible, overlooked or disrespected because of their differences.

And here's the irony. When it comes to the "War on Christmas," both the Christian majority and the non-Christian minority really want the same thing—to have our religious views and celebrations respected and permitted to flourish within a larger American society.

The fact that America is growing more diverse and that we are struggling to do a better a job of acknowledging this diversity also means that Christmas in the public sphere is changing. I can imagine that this must be a difficult process for many as Christmas no longer enjoys the same cultural preeminence that it might have had several decades ago. While it may not be a "War on Christmas," the increasing diversity of the holiday season may create an understandable sense of victimhood.

The same can be said for people who are part of the non-Christian minority. They feel a sense of victimhood that their beliefs or cultures are overlooked, overpowered or simply misunderstood.

So how do we navigate these difficult waters? Let me offer the wisdom of Hillel the sage who said, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor."

If the source of this conflict is that both sides want to feel respected and understood, then the golden rule for this debate should be that all of us try to have the decency to give our neighbors the respect we so desperately desire ourselves.

In a season of giving, it should not be too much to ask for each of us to recognize the diverse culture in which we live and to appreciate the wonderful gifts that such diversity provides. To appreciate the smell of a Christmas tree, the taste of a potato latke, the Diwali sweets or the lights of multiple religious traditions that light up dark winter nights. That would offer me some holiday cheer.