Does the clamor for Christmas drown out Chanukah

washington | The sound of angry Christians railing against the marginalization of Christmas has become the new tune for this holiday season.

Across the country, from department stores to town halls, battle lines have been drawn over how to mark the winter holidays.

Led by evangelical groups, who say the holiday’s religious significance is being ignored, some Christians are fighting back. They’re threatening to sue school districts that have banned the singing of Christmas carols and other places where “Happy Holidays” has replaced “Merry Christmas” as the preferred greeting of the season.

Evangelical leaders don’t cast the Jewish community as the Scrooge, yet efforts to highlight Christian themes and celebrations at Christmas historically have come at the expense of religious diversity and tolerance.

“It is not a movement prompted by an animus against Jews or the Jewish community,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who in recent months has taken the lead in warning about growing evangelical influence in the United States. “But the unintended consequence is that Jews may be blamed for it.”

Rabbi Leah Richman of Pottsville, Pa., received angry letters and phone calls when she called for the removal of a nativity scene in her town square.

“The non-Jewish people in the area are very interested in promoting Christmas and they believe that church and state should be more mingled,” Richman said. “They’re taking my stand as being anti-tolerance and anti-diversity because I’m not tolerant of their nativity scene.”

Instead of opposing the nativity scene, some respondents said Richman should place a menorah nearby. Indeed, much of the evangelical community’s argument has rested on a call for more celebrations of both Christmas and Chanukah, part of a call for a return to “Judeo-Christian values.”

The onslaught of Christmas decorations and programming for years has been a source of quiet frustration for American Jews, but decisions about how to handle it have varied. Some Jewish groups have worked to ensure that religious Christmas displays don’t enter the public square, while others — particularly the Chabad movement — sought equal treatment for menorahs and other Chanukah decorations.

The inclusion of Chanukah, and the African American holiday of Kwanzaa, has forced retailers and municipalities to seek more generic and inclusive ways of acknowledging all faiths. That has led to claims that Christianity has been taken out of Christmas celebrations.

The city of Boston renamed a tree in Boston Common a “holiday tree.” Target, the mega-retailer, was criticized for airing commercials in December that did not specifically mention Christmas.

Even Pope Benedict XVI has weighed in, declaring Dec. 11 that a “commercial pollution” of Christmas could alter the holiday’s true meaning. He suggested families erect nativity scenes in their homes.

Self-styled defenders of the faith refer darkly to the “militant secularists” trying to diversify Christmas. But Christian leaders often accuse Hollywood, the media and the American Civil Liberties Union of taking the religion out of Christmas, and all three groups are seen as run by Jews, Foxman said.

Some Jewish leaders warn of a backlash if Jews are perceived as being on the front lines of the fight.

In Coatesville, Pa., city Councilman William Chertok was accused by a colleague of voting against an increase in the city’s Christmas parade budget because he was Jewish.

“I understand, Mr. Chertok, that Jews don’t celebrate Christmas,” councilwoman-elect Patsy Ray said in a meeting in November. Her comments prompted a rebuke from the council and the local media.

Chertok said he voted against the increase for budgetary reasons.

Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has been cast as the lead opponent of Christmas celebrations. He said evangelical leaders are trying to place Christmas and Christianity above other religions.

“There’s a kind of Christian triumphalism; a feeling that Christians have to win every battle,” Lynn said. “There is a fear that other religions are going to be treated the same as Christmas, and that means Christmas won’t have its special place five weeks of the year.”

Supporters of interfaith dialogue say that as the majority religion in the United States, Christians have a right to see more expressions of their faith.

Foxman said he believes retailers especially will continue to present a more inclusive vision of the holiday season — because it allows them to reach the widest possible audience.

“Jews will not go and demand that Target have a menorah,” he said. “But they will have one, and if they have three Christmas trees and one menorah, so what?”