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You Don't Have to Remove Christmas From the Public Square

12/23/2014 12:18 EST | Updated 02/22/2015 05:59 EST

In some quarters, the Christmas season elicits discomfort and even mild controversy around the proper place of Christmas symbols in the public realm. From concerts to decorations, the very word "Christmas" in public schools is a perennial source of commentary and (largely exaggerated) contention. The management of civic space is another point of debate, as evidenced in a 2006 decision to ban a Christmas tree display from a Toronto courthouse lobby on the basis that it might alienate members of other faiths.

Open affirmations of Christmas seem to be making something of a comeback this year. That said, this is a matter worth addressing as it reflects the larger question of how a majority should express its religious and cultural symbols in a pluralistic society. Indeed, it is for this reason that I offer the following thoughts, rather than on the mistaken premise that Christians need any validation from me in celebrating their cherished holiday.

In response to a 2002 decision to rename the Christmas tree outside Toronto City Hall a "holiday tree", Professor Barry Levy, an Orthodox rabbi and head of religious studies at McGill University at the time, aptly noted:

"I believe that this is an unnecessary attempt to secularise Christmas. That object is identified as a Christmas tree - it's not a Hanukkah bush, it's not a winter tree, it's not a festival tree - it's a Christmas tree - we all know it for what it is. Quite frankly I'm offended on behalf of Christians for whom it's a symbol of some importance - that they should have a religious symbol converted into a secular one just in order to accommodate it into public display."

While many Christians consider a Christmas tree as much a cultural symbol as a religious one, Levy's observations reflect my own - and I too am an Orthodox Jew who (forgive me for stating the obvious) does not celebrate Christmas. As Roberta Lamb, a practising Buddhist, once remarked:

"To me, it's about what makes people happy, and if people enjoy decorations on the streets, if they enjoy a lit-up Christmas tree by the skating rink in the square, that's just fine. I don't think that it would serve any benefit to society to say we're not going to have any decorations in public space."

It's a safe bet that the overwhelming majority of Jewish Canadians feel the same way, including those who proudly light Hanukkah candles and likewise celebrate Jewish and not Christian holidays. Even young children understand that one can value a friend's birthday even if it isn't one's own special day; this is one of life's earliest lessons in respecting and validating others. My identity is in no way diminished by embracing the right of my neighbours to share their traditions with pride - and that goes for the religious majority just as it does for minorities.

The irony is that it seems to be some Christians themselves who, in an effort to show respect for non-Christians, often pre-emptively remove "Christmas" from their greetings, events, and public symbols. While the intention is laudable, the effort is largely unnecessary.

Just as I hold the traditions of my faith dear, I appreciate and welcome the deep connection Christians have to the symbols of their holidays. Even more so given that Christmas largely reflects values - such as family, joy, peace, and goodwill - that ultimately resonate with Canadians of all backgrounds.

Whether or not one celebrates Christmas, one can appreciate that Christmas is a time of deep meaning for millions of Canadians, and therefore enriches our society. Just as I cherish the opportunity to participate in public lightings of Hanukkah menorahs, Christians no less should be able to express the symbols of Christmas in the public sphere -- free from the decidedly cheerless effect of political correctness.

To my Christian friends: I wish you a meaningful and Merry Christmas.

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