A War on Whose Christmas?

Tenement Museum

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

On Tuesday I spent a good part of the day at the Tenement Museum, on New York’s Lower East Side.  I was there to meet with the museum’s new president, Kevin Jennings, and to tour their new Under One Roof exhibit with Annie Polland, the EVP for Programs and Interpretation.  An affiliate historic site of the National Trust, the Tenement Museum tells the full American story about how many have come together to make our nation today.

Which brings me to the so-called War on Christmas.

The day I arrived, Kevin had just published an op-ed in Newsweek entitled “A War on Christmas?  What Christmas Are You Talking About?”  Early in the piece he asks the key question:

“In recent years, a new holiday tradition seems to have emerged in America. From pundits to Presidents, the airwaves fill each December with people decrying the so-called “War on Christmas.”

As a historian and museum President, I find myself wanting to ask “War on whose Christmas?”

Those bemoaning the “War on Christmas” harken back to a mythical past in which our nation all came together to celebrate the holiday in the same way. I’ve got bad news for these folks: those times never existed.”

The entire piece is worth the read, because Kevin uses the three families highlighted in the Under One Roof exhibit— the Epsteins, who were Holocast survivors, the Wongs, and the Velez family, who migrated from Puerto Rico—to show how the holidays were celebrated in many ways in just one building in New York City.

Exhibit Timeline

The changing faces, and diversity, of 103 Orchard Street (photo credit: Tenement Museum)

From the lessons learned from the exhibit, Kevin ends with a strong call for inclusion.

“By rewriting the past to reduce the multiple ways Americans celebrated the holidays to a single unitary “Christmas,” those in the present can cast suspicion on difference and project a future where we are all uniform: no room for different traditions, no room for new ideas brought by immigrants, no diversity in our nation.

Such a rewriting of history is not based in historical fact but in politics, and is not only disrespectful to our ancestors but dangerous for current and future Americans who don’t fit some prescribed “norm.”

Rather than celebrate a past that never existed, we should honor the past that did – one in which a diversity of holiday traditions were observed.

Diversity is what makes America America, and the different ways we celebrate the holidays is a wonderful and affirming reminder of the richness of our culture.”

Let’s celebrate our inclusive and real American story, not something that a certain news network has decided is a way to divide our country into Americans and others. And let’s stop letting those pundits and politicians weaponize “Merry Christmas.”

More to come…

DJB

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for this, David. I have had an essay about the “War on Christmas” bubbling under the surface for some time now. So far it is just a kind of inchoate, jumbled collection of thoughts. But at the heart of it, in addition to the very important points Mr. Jenning’s raises, is this question. Where, oh where, is anything resembling a true Christmas spirit in the angry (and false) accusations of all these people who are decrying the completely fictitious (and utterly absurd) “war on Christmas”? I do not see it, anywhere. I see quite the opposite.

    I never thought I would ever be able to hear anything but beauty in those two magic words, “Merry Christmas.” But when a certain political leader (who shall remain nameless) recently greeted a crowd with those two words, surrounded both before them and after them with lies, nothing but lies, and hate, and fear-mongering. And with the coldness of his voice rendering the words actually UGLY, I realized it was possible for those beautiful words to be ruined, and for me it had happened. And that made me feel incredibly sad.

    I will eventually be able to recapture the feeling, but it isn’t going to be easy. For me, for now, those two beautiful words have been tainted. 😦

    And so, this year, I wish you and your beautiful family the warmest, best Christmas celebration ever. I have such fond memories of the few wonderful Christmases I spent with you. THANK YOU again for including me, and for making the day so special. I will always think of you on Christmas, from now on, because of those special, shared times together. ❤

  2. Dear Janet, Thank you for this lovely note. Like you, I have been saddened by so many aspects of the so-called War on Christmas, but most of all by the de-basing of the words “Merry Christmas” so that they become a weapon. The Brown family so enjoyed our Christmas times with you and the boys in recent years, and hope we can find time to get together with you in the New Year. I think of you often and hope you are doing well. Have a wonderful Christmas season. DJB

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