The Christmas season is a great time to visit Manhattan, especially if you have the privilege of not having to pay for a hotel room during the “most wonderful time of year”. While I attended the US Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), the Long Island Railroad, a commuter system, is the connection to the excitement, and getting from Kings Point to the train station mean hopping on the county bus or catch a ride with a senior.
From the waspy, Gatsby-esque village of Kings Point, one rides down Middle Neck Road, the main drag of the Great Neck peninsula, you might suspect that Great Neck is a devoutly Jewish town. Indeed, most local businesses are closed on Saturdays, the liberty day for freshmen at the USMMA. Italian and Asian restaurants, Baker Hill Tavern, gas stations, and several convenience stores are the only stores open on the Sabbath. Many nationalities of Jews are represented by the synagogues of Great Neck, including Iranian Jews, Greek Jews, Armenian Jews, among others. Catholics at St. Aloysius and parishioners at the local Episcopal and AME parishes were in the Christian minority. During December, menorahs and bunting line shops’ windowsills. So I was kind of disappointed that the town’s signs read “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings”. Even though I should’ve felt included as a gentile, something was missing. It was not the lack of “Merry Christmas”, but the absence of tradition. Modernity and secularism won over the devoutly Jewish town.
Great Neck did not launch a ‘war on Christmas’, but chose to use generic greetings as sterile as ultra-pasteurized milk. Sterile is safe, but lacks flavor and the conviction of accepted risk. Instead of the ideal of inclusive multiculturalism, we got homogeny. One other way modernity obscured intercultural understanding is in the Catholic mass: This year, I attended a Christmas Eve service in Korea, where the pastor recited an age-old Eucharistic prayer, brought back by Pope Benedict XVI, which invoked ancient Jewish leaders Melchisedech and Abraham. Ironically, the prayer had been suppressed during Vatican II, when dialogue with other faiths was encouraged.
Sometimes modernity eats its own. Increasing materialism of the Christmas season, since the late 19th century, when Pepsi gave Santa a red coat, created secular symbols associated with Christmas. So why the offense when Christmas is no longer primarily focused on the Nativity scene? Secular Christmas shopping, an offspring from the religiously-motivated charitable acts of Dickensian days, is the cultural norm. To name such behavior “holiday shopping” for “holiday gifts” seems to give a line-item corporate focus, rather than an individual focus, to the shopping season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. What “happy holidays” speaks to me is the thought that, no matter your culture, “people ought to spend and benefit corporate bottom lines”. To embrace Christmas, Hanukkah, or both, is to take back the season from retailers and bring it back to the people.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!