Now, I am for keeping Christ in Christmas as much as anyone. I especially bristle when people take the First Amendment ban on religious establishment too far and once even complained about it to my son’s public elementary school. The school had mounted a “Holiday Concert” which included “The Dreidel Song,” a ditty about Kwanzaa and a “Christian-themed” song called “Old Fashioned Holiday.”
You don’t know the song, I am sure. You don’t want to. It is one of a ton of “songs” created to satisfy school programs like this one where the fear is that someone – anyone – might be offended at the suggestion of religious faith. In fact, if you go onto a site called Music K-8 (www.musick8.store) and find the page for “Old Fashioned Holiday,” you can read the following appeal to grade school music teachers:
The lush progressions and orchestrations capture the sound of nostalgia, which is so integral to the piece. One other nice thing about this song is that it is not holiday specific. It never says anything about any one holiday or another, though it does manage to inspire that warm and fuzzy seasonal feeling and mention many familiar elements of the season.
“Old Fashioned Holiday” is “White Christmas” without the “Christmas” and without, I might add, the musical talents of Irving Berlin, one of America’s greatest popular music composers who, while Jewish, wrote this song in the 1940s when the nation was caught up in World War II. (He also wrote “Easter Parade.”) Back then, “dreaming” of a Christmas “just like the ones I used to know” was a feeling that many families praying for servicemen serving abroad could relate to.
Berlin’s music is not only far superior to that of the composer of “Old Fashioned Holiday,” it is an American classic, worthy of study in its own right. Why, I asked the school’s principal, did they choose a pedestrian song over a great one? “Because our lawyers told us we couldn’t sing about Christmas,” she said.
That, of course, is a perversion of First Amendment principles. “White Christmas” is not a religious song (is there a more secular “carol” in the canon than this one?) and even if it were, the singing of religious music in public schools is not forbidden by the First Amendment or how would we justify the thousands of performances of Handel’s “Messiah” by earnest high school groups each year? Prompted by fears of constitutional heresy, my son’s school had concluded that in order to satisfy the First Amendment, they needed to either trivialize religion, trivialize music, or both.
Still, this chain e-mail that I received last week bemoaning those who would “take Christ out of Christmas” went way too far for me. Many of you may have already seen it. The text was purportedly borrowed from a 2005 television essay that Ben Stein, the droll-voiced actor and former presidential speechwriter, did on the CBS show “Sunday Morning.” It opens this way:
I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees, Christmas trees. I don’t feel threatened. I don’t feel discriminated against. That’s what they are, Christmas trees…
Okay, I can go along with that.
But then Stein seems to go off the deep end. First, he quotes Billy Graham’s daughter drawing a line between Hurricane Katrina and our decision to “[tell] God to get out of our schools, out of our government and out of our lives.” Then, he tells us that the disregard for God actually began with Madeline Murray O’Hare, the celebrated atheist of the 1950s, who campaigned against prayer in school. It was furthered along by Dr. Benjamin Spock, the popular pediatrician who advised the parents of baby boomers to find more civilized methods of punishing their children than spanking their little behinds. Stein informs us that O’Hare was later murdered and Spock’s son committed suicide. All of that prompts him to muse that our “godless” society has taught our children to “have no conscience,” disregard the difference between “right” and “wrong” and “kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.”
It would be funny if this message hadn’t been passed before millions of people over the last six years and, judging by it having been passed on to me last week, it is still a being received by some as gospel. Just think of all the innocent minds soiled by the dangerous idea that if you don’t have prayers in public schools and if you find spanking an inappropriate method for disciplining naughty kids, a punitive and bloodthirsty God will come get you with all manner of natural disaster, death and misery.
The essay seemed so shrill and moronic, I was not surprised when I went on a valuable site called http://urbanlegends.about.com/and discovered that Stein had said none of the above. Or, to be more precise, he said the first paragraph about being Jewish and not minding Christmas trees, but then, after some cranky comments about popular culture delivered in the colorful manner we are likely to associate with the late Andy Rooney, he signed off.
Turned out that as Stein’s story was passed around in the ether, it gathered a bit of moss. By the time it hit my inbox, it not only had the line about O’Hare and Spock (neither was in Stein’s original) and the one about roving bands of kids killing everything in sight (absent from Stein); it also claimed that this year, 2011, the Obama White House had changed the name of the decorated evergreen in front of the national residence from “Christmas Tree” to “Holiday Tree.” (It hasn’t and it hadn’t when Stein wrote his piece in 2005 either.)
The whole thing, then, was a cynical exercise, distorting Stein’s casual lament into a bugle riff about how the state is out to take our religion away. It is, in a sense, the flip side of the “Old Fashioned Holiday” music industry: Where one is overzealous about keeping religion out of the public sphere, the other is overzealous about putting it back in and at this time of year, both sides come a-wassailing. Ah, the Christmas, er, Holiday spirit!
Todd Brewster is the Director of the National Constitution Center’s Peter Jennings Project and the Center for Oral History at West Point.