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Saturday, July 26, 2014

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It’s time for that holiday once again

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Jean Gerber

Well, it is almost time for that holiday – you know, fat man in a red suit (not the mayor of Toronto), shop till you drop, deck the halls and hit the malls, etc.

The lead-up to Christmas is fraught for North American Jews. We live in a world overwhelmingly Christian. Despite public schools’ best efforts to provide a holiday celebration, it always begins to look a lot like Christmas. Most people will celebrate it, one way or another.

My Christmas was always celebrated as a religious and family holiday. We shunned the secular and emphasized the religious basis – there were all those ministers in the family, not to mention choir directors and organists. We shared it with cousins and uncles and aunts and had a grand time.

Presents were modest, since no one was rich. There was no alcohol in the eggnog or brandy in the mince pie.

We celebrated it without a thought for those for whom it would be a problem. Who knew? Well, now we know.

To step back a bit, let’s look at a current public issue.

Like their Tea Party fellows to the south, the Parti Québécois government clings to the notion that a homogeneous society is the only way to go. Ironically, by taking charge of their own immigration policy, Quebec has created the multicoloured and multi-religious society it now seeks to control.

In 1950, we might have been excused for not seeing the growing multicultural nature of our society. But no more. C’mon people, it’s no longer 1950, even though many Canadians wish it were.

When my husband and I left the United States to settle in Canada, we left behind a segregated society. There were still chain gangs, and less conspicuous but still segregated facilities everywhere. My high school had a colour bar you could chin yourself on. I grew up in a monochrome world and now live in a polychrome one.

We have been very happy in Canada as the flavours of the world have come to our doorstep. We have become accustomed to Christmas as it plays out in the larger society. Why not? Its celebration, crass as it may be at times, gives joy to most Canadians. (And take heart: few Jews are converting to Christmas.)

The larger question of sharing a cultural divide, however, as reflected in the current crisis in Quebec illustrates the need for a lot more work on everyone’s part.

Vali Nasr has written in another context (The Shia Revival): “Religion is not just about God and salvation; it decides the boundaries of communities.” In the old days, people lived pretty comfortably within those boundaries. As Tevye had it, “everyone knew who he/she was and what God expected them to do.”

In North America, that is no longer true. Again, Nasr: “Our world is expanding and contracting at the same time.” So our neighbours, Christian or not, may now know that we celebrate a different December holiday. They may still wish us a happy Christmas and wonder why we all go to the movies on Christmas Eve instead of opening presents. But they celebrate theirs, and we ours, with little or no friction.

We can see, just by opening the morning paper, that this is not true for many countries. Christians and Muslims are killing each other in the Middle East, across Africa, in Pakistan and in India. Certainly, while factors of power and control of resources are certainly a part of the equation, religion has to take some of the blame for the bloodshed. The “boundaries of communities” are not, as they are by and large here, ones that we take in stride. They are matters of life and death – often a gruesome death.

So I have to say that I do not need to have the word Christmas erased from public discourse. Some may find it impossible, but the fact that we can acknowledge and live with each other’s holidays – let’s not forget Diwali and Ramadan – expresses to me exactly what the Canadian spirit of multiculturalism is all about. I hope that others will agree.

My granddaughter will partner with her friend Ayesha in their Grinch-themed school play. Yet when I picked her up before Chanukah, as she hopped out of the car, she asked: “Know what my favourite holiday is, Savta? Chanukah!”

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