Q&A with Denise Noe, author of Christmas Gifts from the Chanukah Crowd: The Extraordinary Contributions of American Jews to Christmas
1) What led you to want to write a book about Christmas Gifts from the Chanukah Crowd: The Extraordinary Contributions of American Jews to Christmas?
I’ve long considered the entire “War On Christmas” to be a manufactured controversy. Attempts to be more inclusive or friendly to people who don’t celebrate Christmas hardly “constitute” a war. I came across evidence that some people specifically accuse Jews of trying to get rid of Christmas. Henry Ford wrote of “Jewish opposition to Christmas.” In our era, David Duke pushes hard on the idea of a Jewish war on Christmas. His website showed a cartoon Grinch with a Star of David on his hat and Israeli flag on his torso and an article entitled, “The Jewish War on Christmas!” An internet personality called “Brother Nathaniel,” a Jew who converted to Christianity and became rabidly anti-Semitic, even publishing a series he calls “Real Jew News,” and runs pieces on his website with titles like “The Jewish War on Christmas.” Since Jews have in fact contributed so much to both Christmas songs and Christmas-themed movies, I decided to write a book that would set the record straight.
2) Do you consider the book a kind of rebuttal to David Duke and other people who say Jews are making war on Christmas?
I’m not trying to start a fight with anyone. My book was written to encourage understanding between peoples. I try to be fair to everyone — including Duke despite his bad reputation. For example, I acknowledge that Duke has never even been accused of any violent crime. I also write that he has never made any statement against Roman Catholics and invited them into the Ku Klux Klan group with which he was affiliated during his youth. Of course, he is not apt to like my book as it gives the lie to the idea of a Jewish War on Christmas that he promotes.
3) You are neither Jewish nor Christian, although your background is Christian. Do you believe these facts influenced the book?
My background is Christian so I’m very familiar with much in the way of Christian thinking. However, I was concerned that my book not reflect negatively on any religious group. I asked a couple of Christians to look over the book for any negative stereotyping of Christians and I made a similar request of a couple of Jewish people. Both Christians and Jews assured me they found no negative stereotyping but both also shared factual corrections or suggestions that I incorporated into the book. In the chapter on major December holidays besides either Christmas or Chanukah, I had a segment on the revival of the celebration of Yule/Winter Solstice among modern pagan groups. I asked a pagan to look it over for anti-pagan bias. She said should could tell “the person who wrote it was not pagan” but that she did not consider it anti-pagan. She also made corrections as to facts and suggestions that I put in it because they improved that segment.
4) What were your main sources for Christmas Gifts from the Chanukah Crowd?
I checked a lot of books out of the library for the research. As I have with every book, I delved into articles on the Internet and especially articles in online encyclopedias. However, I did not take any direct quotes from Wikipedia — I never have — due to concerns about accuracy. A big chunk of my research for that book was just listening to Christmas songs and watching movies like It’s A Wonderful Life. Much of that research was a lot of fun!
5) You start with a chapter on Christmas itself. Why do you think this holiday is so popular even among many non-Christians?
I think there are several reasons. One is that Christmas represents so many good attitudes: generosity, kindness, and caring. Another is that Christmas is so colorful. Indeed, it is literally colorful with its white-bearded and red-suited Santa Claus, its green Christmas tree, the silver tinsel and gold balls. Children love it because they look forward to presents! Finally, the holiday does have a special appeal to Christians, or at least those Christians who celebrate Christmas, because it is about the birth of their savior (even if there is no evidence he was actually born even close to the day Christmas is celebrated.
6) Do you believe any actual war on Christmas by anyone actually exists?
There was a War on Christmas in the past. As I discuss in the first chapter of my book, “Christmas in the World, Christmas in America,” in the seventeenth century, the religious reformers we know as the Puritans had a strong dislike for Christmas. They disliked it due to its pagan origins in the holidays of Yule and Winter Solstice and they disliked it because of the rowdy revelries that tended to take place around Christmas. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers took over Britain in 1645, they outlawed Christmas. The Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock despised Christmas.The city of Boston outlawed Christmas in 1659. So there was a War on Christmas — waged by a subgroup of Christians.
I don’t believe there is a modern War on Christmas by secularists or Jews or anyone else. There is no fine for greeting anyone with a “Merry Christmas.” There is a trend toward being more inclusive toward various groups that do not celebrate Christmas but no war.
7) You have a chapter on Jewish contributions to Christmas songs and one on Jewish contributions to Christmas-themed movies. In your opinion, what is the most outstanding Jewish contribution to the Christian holiday?
If I had to single out a single Jewish contribution to Christmas as most outstanding, I would point to Irving Berlin’s song, “White Christmas.” Berlin had special difficulties writing this song, not only because Christmas was not his holiday as a Jew but because December 25 was the day of a terrible tragedy in his life that I discuss in the book. However, he wrote the song, a simple song and all the more powerful for being simple. Bing Crosby’s recording of Berlin’s song is the best selling Christmas song of all time.
8) You have a chapter entitled “A Holiday Called Chanukah.” What did you learn in researching Chanukah? I was familiar with the basics of the Chanukah story and knew it celebrated a victory of the ancient Hebrews over their oppressors. I learned that it was, to a large extent, a battle between “Hellenizing” Jews who sought assimilation and Jews who wanted to hold onto their Jewish identity. I also learned that, in the modern world, Gentiles have taken greater interest in the holiday. Thus, just as about half the Christmas songs were written or co-written by Jews, Gentiles are singing and/or writing Chanukah songs.
9) You also have a chapter that deals with four other December holidays: Kwanzaa, Yule/Winter Solstice, Boxing Day, and Festivus. Tell me a bit about these holidays.
Kwanzaa is a secular holiday created in 1966 by Black Power activist Dr. Maulenga Karenga. Dr. Karenga was inspired by African customs and traditional values in creating Kwanzaa. I find the revival of Yule/Winter Solstice celebrations fascinating because there is a kind of circular link between them and Christmas. Nothing in the New Testament suggests Jesus was born in December but early Christians fixed the celebration of his birthday to coincide with pagan celebrations of Yule and/or the Winter Solstice. One reason the Puritans, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and some other Christian groups reject Christmas is because there is a sense in which it celebrates the previous pagan holiday. In the contemporary world, some people are leaving behind the Christmas replacement for the original Yule holiday. Boxing Day is the day after Christmas and I discuss in the book the reason for the name “Boxing Day.” I think Festivus speaks volumes about modern life because people are still observing a holiday that started with a 1997 Seinfeld episode. Art imitates life and life often imitates art — in this case, a TV sitcom.
10) Why should people read this book?
People might read the book for reassurance — we are in no danger of losing Christmas! To a large extent, I wrote the book to build bridges between peoples. By showing the way Jews have contributed to a Christian holiday, I hope I might make a modest contribution to decreasing ethnic and religiously based hostilities.They should read it to learn about how human differences and commonalities have come together to enrich humanity itself.