I do not believe that Christmas is a dangerous holiday for Jews. Exposure to tinsel and evergreens and popular songs will not turn a Jewish child against the covenant and four thousand years of history – especially if that child knows about the covenant and four thousand years of history.
Christmas, however, is not a Jewish holiday. It is a religious observance for Christians, and we should seek to respect the religious nature of the day. I include in the category of respect good wishes to those who celebrate it, as well as resisting those who would diminish or commercialize it. And, of course, those who would appropriate it, well, inappropriately.
The pervasiveness of Christmas in America has led some Jews to elevate Chanukkah to the folk status of Christmas. I don't refer to the dead-horse issue of gifts and decorations and television specials. I refer to those who exploit the guilt factor among liberal Christians to place the symbols and message of Chanukkah in front of the American public.
Chanukkah is a great holiday, especially for teaching. Its observances are colorful and tactile, fun and simple. The variety of messages which can be drawn from Chanukkah make it versatile – the power of miracles, religious freedom, resisting tyranny, and self-determination. All of those messages and more are essential.
At its root, however, Chanukkah is a holiday which commemorates a civil war among the Jews. Its conflict is very familiar: one group wished to synthesize modern culture with Jewish tradition, the other group considered such influences polluting and heretical. The ultra-conservative Hasmoneans (Maccabees) won the war and became the dominant force in Jewish life for generations. The combination of religious and political power soon corrupted the Hasmonean rulers, and they became a repressive dynasty. They did not, however, squelch the evolution of Jewish tradition.
The Maccabean victory itself is the message of importance to those who promote public observances of the holiday. By couching the holiday in "seasonal" terms, the emphasis on religious conservatism is more subtle, but nonetheless present. And by placing the symbol of that victory – the Chanukkiah – on public land and conducting a religious ceremony to light it, constitutional conflicts are inevitable.
What an unusual position for a rabbi – endorsing the presence of Christmas and criticizing the presence of Chanukkah! For those who are focused on the simple manifestations of the holidays, my opinion will induce disbelief or even outrage. But I hope that upon reflecting on the real meaning of both holidays, we will come to understand that this season is not about media moments and equal time, but about the real values of being Jewish in contemporary society.