Monday, April 01, 2013

An Easter Monday-not-April-Fools post

There's a certain branch of Judaism that consists of one principle (no, principal! thank you commenter-copy-editing) tenet: the non-celebration of Christmas. Every other rule can be broken (or, more likely, not known about in the first place), but come December 25, no tree, no "merry," no nothing. Realistically, for secular non-hermits, there will be a certain amount of cheerily acknowledging others' celebration of the day, but you yourself need to openly not partake. Depending how strictly you non-observe, you may not even feel comfortable doing 'Jewish Christmas' - the Chinese-food-and-movies approach.

What's always fascinated me about Judaism-as-non-celebration-of-Christmas is that it doesn't seem to extend to other Christian observances. Specifically, Easter. I remember dyeing eggs - and at home, not at the behest of some outside entity trying to impose Christianity on unsuspecting Jewish children. And I remember a lot of Peeps. Easter just never meant anything to me either way. 

And why was that? Like Christmas, it pops up alongside a Jewish holiday, and there, the two are actually somehow related. And the religious significance of Easter is if anything more Christian than Christmas - as an atheist Jew, I believe Jesus was born, but not that he (or anyone) was resurrected. Historically, a brief search suggests there were pogroms on Christmas as well as Easter, so this doesn't seem to be the determining factor. The obvious: Christmas is the much bigger secular-Christian holiday. It's the soundtrack to your life from Halloween on every year whether you observe it or not. Easter, not so much. 

Well! Times have changed, or maybe I've been oblivious, but now, Judaism-as-non-celebration-of-Easter is also a thing. Via Facebook, I came across Ari Kohen's post about Easter and majority-religion privilege. Which led me to his earlier post bringing attention to another post: by a Jewish mother, PJ Feinstein, unsure of whether to donate $1.99 worth of plastic eggs to an Easter-egg hunt at her child's daycare. 

I recount this with the chronology in which I came across these posts, to recreate my own thoughts on the matter. First, re: Kohen's post on "privilege," I thought, yes, this does address why 'what's the big deal?' is a pathetic and even offensive response from members of the majority to complaints of a minority. Of course, the word "privilege" is 100% guaranteed to elicit defensiveness (and if you dig into the responses, it does). Particularly when it's applied to Gentiles by a Jew - there's so much of a popular assumption that Jews are extra-privileged that remarks from a Jew about hegemony have a way of eliciting retorts about the % of Jews at elite colleges, the overrepresentation of New York Jews on sitcoms, the power of the IDF relative to the Palestinians, and so forth. It's difficult to convey how a group could be successful as well as marginalized, and to do so without resorting to 'look what happened in Germany,' which is, let's face it, the obvious retort. The word "privilege," though not inaccurate, doesn't necessarily help.

Then there's Feinstein's Easter-egg query. First, my vat-vill-dem-goyim-say? impulse is that it's probably Bad for the Jews to center a discussion around the spending-or-not of $1.99. I mean, I get that it's not about the money, and from the post itself, it's clear that the price is given to indicate precisely that. But those inclined to respond that Jews make too much of a fuss about everything are probably not going to see it like that. Anti-Semitism 101.

As for the substance of the matter, if this child is going to participate in an Easter egg hunt (as seems to have been a given), the matter's already been decided. How is participating and not paying better than participating and paying? How is that a principled objection to anything? And more to the point, it seems like my initial thoughts on this - Jews really don't care either way about Easter - may have been right: Writes Feinstein, "I viewed the egg hunt as something fun for the kids to do rather than as religious activity." Indeed. I personally don't care one bit whether Christians or atheists of Christian origin think Christmas, Easter, etc. are or are not holidays Jews should acknowledge, because it's not for them to say. But I do care what Jews think, and if Jews don't have a thing with Easter, it doesn't seem necessary to artificially impose the Christmas-thing on that holiday.


Unknown said...

In the first line, principle -> principal? (Please feel free to delete this)

caryatis said...

"First, re: Kohen's post on "privilege," I thought, yes, this does address why 'what's the big deal?' is a pathetic and even offensive response from members of the majority to complaints of a minority."

I don't actually think he addresses that question so much as vaguely gestures towards the concept of privilege. I mean, isn't it true that some aspects of religious culture are bigger deals than others? If the preschool baptized your child without your permission, that would legitimately be a bigger deal than any number of Christianish decorations.

Phoebe said...


If the preschool rounded up the Jewish children (note the plaques next to schools in Paris - this did once happen) that would be worst. That there's a spectrum doesn't mean less big deals aren't important. Not to keep repeating myself, but remember what I explained in a recent thread re: "articulate"? Marginalization operates on various levels, not all of which are immediately apparent to the not-marginalized.

What Kohen addressed was the question of perspective. That what seems like nothing from the outside can seem like something from the inside. The problem - see, for further explanation, my already-long-winded post above - is that Easter-egg hunts may not actually be something that will traditionally bother or exclude Jews.

Phoebe said...

Or in simpler terms, think of it like this: what's offensive to Group X is for members of Group X to determine. Group X, not being a monolith, is bound to have some internal disagreement over where to draw the line (even intra-familial, as the egg-hunt anecdote conveys). But if you're not a part of the group in question, your thoughts on what ought or ought not offend members of that group are irrelevant. They should certainly not be the deciding factor. There's no population-wide vote, with majority-rules.

David Schraub said...

Huh. Growing up, I very aggressively did not celebrate Christmas (to the point where doing Christmas with my girlfriend's family still makes me quite uncomfortable, even though all it entails for me is getting gifts and eating delicious food), but I just normally didn't celebrate Easter. It wasn't that I didn't view Easter as religious -- we definitely wouldn't have painted eggs -- but it just wasn't as ubiquitous and thus it wasn't so important to disavow it. Christmas is so woven into the daily fabric of December life that you can't just ignore it -- you're presumed to be celebrating Christmas and actively accosted with Christmas spirit unless you affirmatively opt out. By contrast, one can go about your normal life on Easter and nobody will say one thing or the other.

The result is that I was and remain deeply ignorant about Easter. I was in law school the first time I noticed someone with ash on their forehead during ash Wednesday (I remember because I came this close to telling them "you have smudge" before something in my mind clicked and I stopped myself). And yesterday I tried to run to the grocery store to pick up some matzah and was temporarily baffled by its closure.

Britta said...

Well, Christmas has really only very tenuous religious significance, whereas Easter (+ holy week) is by far the most holy and significant holiday in the Christian calendar, and indeed, the only holiday which defines Christianity as such.

Of course, even more so than Christmas, secular Easter stuff is even less related to religious Easter stuff. Eggs, bunnies, chocolate, and dancing around bonfires is all very firmly linked to pagan traditions or just made up general "yay Spring!!" stuff. Maybe that's why secular Easter stuff doesn't grate in the same way? The holiday is so absolutely religious there's no way to secularize the religious stuff, so the secular stuff just runs completely parallel. Lots of devout Christians fully celebrate Easter in all its pomp and circumstance with no eggs or bunnies making an appearance, in a way that would be very hard to do with Christmas.* (Eating lamb is maybe more fraught.) There are no secular Easter hymns, because there is no way to sing about some religious figure's resurrection without it being religious. Also, my guess is most people, Easter-celebrating Jews or otherwise, stick to the more secular end and avoid the more overtly pagan parts, like dancing around bonfires until midnight/dawn.

*Obviously Christmas is on the winter solstice and has no link to any actual birth of anyone, and many of the rituals are traced back to pagan influences, but there was more of an attempt to put an overt Christianized spin on many of them. E.g., Martin Luther was the guy who invented(?) the Christmas tree, and he had all this stuff on "reflecting the light and beauty of God in your home" which makes it hard to take the tree as a totally secular/pagan thing.

Phoebe said...


"you're presumed to be celebrating Christmas and actively accosted with Christmas spirit unless you affirmatively opt out."

That's definitely a lot of it. Although I think it goes further than that, at least for Jews whose non-celebration of Christmas is their main expression of Jewish adherence. (As vs. more observant Jews, who have other ways of expressing this.) There's this idea that Christmas is 100% enjoyment for those who do celebrate it - there's no sense that it might be a family get-together and something of a chore for many who observe it. Whereas Easter - and this gets to Britta's point as well - seems like a church holiday, and thus not so idyllic. Plus, Christmas must be euphemized as "the holidays," or Winter Break, whereas Spring Break really is just that - there's no sense that it's about Easter but no one dares admit it.


As Kohen points out, and as I've found as well, the whole pagan/secular/Christian distinction is something Jews tend not to really care about. That Christmas isn't 'really' Christian is what allows lapsed Christians to celebrate it, but it still feels plenty culturally Christian to Jews.

But - and this gets to David's point as well - the difference with Easter is there's no particular assumption that it's not a religious holiday, and therefore that non-Christians who fail to observe it are making a fuss/being difficult. So when Jews do go in for Peeps and such, there's this sense perhaps not that it's secular, but that it isn't under duress.

caryatis said...

"what's offensive to Group X is for members of Group X to determine...if you're not a part of the group in question, your thoughts on what ought or ought not offend members of that group are irrelevant."

Agreed. Being offended, is, after all, a feeling, and it is not for me to tell anyone what feelings they have. But the caveat is that deciding what sorts of speech should be censored or penalized is for the majority to decide, not for Group X, precisely because Group X puts too much weight on its own interests and tends to deemphasize those of the larger society (or of Group Y.)

Phoebe said...

Caryatis, I'm not following your objection here. Let's say 90% of Group X thinks saying A is offensive, while 90% of those outside Group X doesn't see the big deal. The majority isn't expected to have infinite preexisting knowledge of what's problematic for Group X, esp. if this group is a tiny minority and members of the majority may not have even heard of its existence. (I.e. someone not knowing how to properly use "cis" isn't necessarily transphobic, but may have never even heard of "trans.") But once someone learns that A offends the vast majority of those in Group X, how exactly is it burdensome to "larger society" to refrain from saying A, or to say A knowing full well one is eliciting backlash? Where does censorship enter into this?

With the holidays example, I don't think anyone would suggest that it's offensive to wish someone who might be Jewish (and, in theory, anyone might) a merry Christmas. What would be offensive - and worthy of criticism (not some kind of authoritarian penalty or whatever it is you're suggesting) - is if the second person's like, 'Thanks, but actually, I don't celebrate Christmas, I'm Jewish' (not necessary in most cases, but with people who know each other better, not necessarily uncalled for), and maybe the conversation goes on for a bit in both directions, but culminates in the first person telling the second that his refusal to celebrate Christmas is wrong, because it is a secular holiday, because the majority says so.

This is all really about civility, not legal free-speech restraints. No one is suggesting, to my knowledge, that we outlaw using "articulate" to describe anyone who's black. But it's, you know, a nice gesture to refrain from doing so once you know the deal. I'm not seeing how that's a burden.