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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

Happy Chrismahanu- uh, holidays. With rice.

Duluth News Tribune blog, Nov. 29, 2004, and Dayton Daily News, Dec. 10, 2004

I've been pondering the true meaning of Chrismahanukwanzakah lately.

But it's not about the literal definition of the portmanteau word, which I first saw emblazoned on a billboard outside of the Virgin Records superstore on a trip to Times Square last week. With Rudolph all bling-blinged in Afrocentric garb and menorah-shaped antlers, its marketing connotation is obvious: Whoever you are, whatever you believe in or practice, you're always welcome to sign up for Virgin Mobile or buy as many Al Green CDs as you like at 1 a.m. in the world's gaudiest shopping arena.

Indeed, when it comes to selling things, multiculturalism has no bigger booster than corporate America. Though some conservative pundits bemoan the shelving of the phrase "Merry Christmas" in favor of "Happy Holidays" as a bow to political correctness, it's more due to a recognition that the country is becoming increasingly diverse, and margin dictates that retailers appeal to the broadest market share possible. Why take the chance of offending an atheist, animist or Buddhist if that person is willing to plop down $29.95 for a Tender Heart Care Bear?

That's not to say that Santa, elves and even the Infant Jesus are by any means absent from the mall scene, and the season brings the opportunity for even more sales of holiday-specific goods, such as Christmas trees, menorahs, and kinaras, the seven-branched Kwanzaa candelabra. Even those items are far from sacred when it comes to selling them. Just ask the Virgin Rudolph.

It's not the corporate world I'm worried about, however, but the public arena, which I suspect still has a ways to go in understanding what's appropriate to thrust on the masses. And I wonder how much has changed since my days as an African American and Jewish grade schooler in Chicago 40 years ago. I was the only Jew in my classes - aside from my teachers - and inevitably in mid-December I'd have to raise my hand.

"Mrs. Horowich?"

"Yes, Robin?"

"Can I be excused from making a Chrissmass card because I'm Jewish?"

"Of course, Robin. You can make a Hanukkah card all by yourself."

And so I would, happily, and usually I made two: one for Mrs. Horowich. A few days later I'd raise my hand again.

"Mrs. Horowich?"

"What is it now, Robin?"

"Can I be excused from singing the Chrissmass carols because I'm Jewish?"

"Of course, Robin. You can sing a Hanukkah song all by yourself."

Somewhere in the third verse of "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel" (or the more militaristic "Come get your drum and march with me! You too can be a Maccabee!") I'd stop to listen to the rest of the class. For years, I wondered: If they liked Jesus so much, why were they singing, "Oh come, let us ignore him"?

My daughter Erin says not much had changed by the time she attended first grade at Duluth's Congdon Park Elementary in 1986, though a menorah-adorned note from teacher Shari Rud (now principal of Chester Park Lab School) that popped out of a storage box recently suggests a little more sensitivity was in play. Still, Erin recalls joining her class in the school assembly to sing, "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth."

Yet there was truth to that. "I was missing my two front teeth at the time," she says, thus rendering the wish accurate whether we celebrated the holiday or not.

Some years later, Erin was a member of the chorus at the decidedly more Jewish Newton South High School in suburban Boston. The choir caroled through the halls and balanced off Christmas selections with "Bashana Haba 'ah," a Jewish song for the next year, though the Jewish New Year is actually in the early fall and... well, she says the choir got to get out of class anyway.

"We always sang the 'Hallelujah Chorus,' " she recalls. And of course they did. It's serious music that transcends the triviality of "I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus." Besides, Handel also wrote "Judas Maccabeus," though I don't know if his lyrics require you to grab a drum and start marching.

The Hallelujah Chorus does include the line "And of his Christ." Erin says the choir director had an answer for that.

"If you were uncomfortable saying that you could sing 'And of his rice.' "

Well! That solves it. And it's a whole lot easier to sing than "Chrismahanukwanzakah."

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