12/27/2013 12:06 EST | Updated 02/26/2014 05:59 EST

Christmas by Any Other Name

As the cold winter wind blows in from the north there are a few things that are inevitable. Snow has to be shovelled and the predictable war of words regarding the depiction of Christmas will be played out in newspapers across the country.

Who can forget the monumental foolishness of the civil servants in Toronto a number of years back who decided the giant evergreen in front of Toronto City Hall, covered with glittering lights and Christmas decorations, had to be renamed the "holiday tree"?

And then, of course, the overreaction in a Toronto courthouse a little while ago that saw a smaller Christmas tree moved to an area of the building that was less public.

To be sure, the thought behind the decisions was well meaning. After all, today Canada is one of the world's most engaged multicultural experiments and Toronto is living proof of its potential success. However, I don't believe that multiculturalism was ever meant to override sensitivity and common sense.

Certainly we ought to be thankful that the days when ignorance and so-called Judeo-Christian privilege seemed to dominate are vestiges of the past. Without a doubt, for us Jews, there was nothing "Judeo" about Judeo-Christian anyway.

However, there are times when I think we may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

As a young boy growing up in Ottawa in the 1950s and '60s, it was at times a tough place to be Jewish. Often I was one of only a couple of Jewish children in my school and the religious-based anti-Semitism was in your face. Anti-Jewish taunts leading to schoolyard fights were almost a daily occurrence.

Yet, on the other side of the coin, are the fond memories that remain. For example, our family lived in a small triplex in Ottawa's Sandy Hill area. At this time of the year, Christmas surrounded us wherever we were. The front window of Ottawa's largest department store, Freiman's, was decked out with toy elves, a miniature electric train that children could sit in as it chugged its way from the front window to Toyland ... and, of course, Santa Claus. Children of all faiths loved visiting Freiman's at Christmas. Ironically, A.J. Freiman was one of Ottawa's most distinguished Jewish leaders.

Christmas time for the Jewish families in Ottawa also meant Hanukkah. Although not a major Jewish holy day, it is a time when Jews celebrate redemption from religious persecution and for us children it held its own magic.

It wasn't Christmas but the small gifts of silver dollars and Hanukkah dreidels (spinning tops) along with tasty potato latkes (pancakes) always filled our small apartment.

One of the keen recollections of that time was the sharing of both holidays. We lived in Apartment 2. Madame Villeneuve, a sweet grandmotherly French Canadian woman and devout Catholic, lived in Apartment 3. Monsieur Villeneuve died when I was young and in many ways she became a second grandmother to me and my brother. I remember when my mother went to the hospital to deliver my younger brother, it was Mme Villeneuve who cooked for Dad and me, walked me to school, and helped out till my mother was back on her feet.

At Hanukkah, Mme Villeneuve would join us for latkes, Hanukkah songs and dreidel games. I can still hear that resonant Quebecois accent in her rendition of Hanukkah songs which she learned to sing in Hebrew. And on Christmas morning she would always invite us down to her apartment to sit in front of the tree where she would give us her Christmas gifts.

It never occurred to me or my parents that we should object. In fact, my memories of the time are filled with warmth and tenderness.

I suppose Ottawa of yesteryear had in many ways its own kind of multicultural spirit. We didn't worry about "holiday trees" or the kind of greeting to deliver. Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, happy holidays - whatever was said, we understood it was meant in the true sprit of the season. Today we seemed to have lost some of that innocence.

So, as we embrace the holiday season, let us all embrace the spirit of our faiths and particularly the joy the season can bring. If we can all share just a bit of that joy, then not only will we learn something about other cultures - but we'll have some warm and lasting memories to boot.