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Let’s respect diverse Christmas traditions, music and observances

I’m not sure what Garrison Keillor meant in his piece “Some things aren’t meant to be messed with,” and I’m not sure I want to know. After all, anybody can have a cranky day and spout all sorts of unfortunate remarks.

[The article appeared in the Star Tribune and elsewhere, and was the subject of a MinnPost Community Voices piece.]

Keillor in his Christmas commentary is not the Garrison Keillor who in 2004 beautifully narrated “The Danish Solution: Rescue of Jews in Denmark,” which tells the story of the Christian rescue of Danish Jews from the Holocaust.

Keillor in his Christmas commentary is not the Garrison Keillor who recently and graciously hosted on “Prairie Home Companion” the Jewish composer and poet, Ricky Ian Gordon, who is composing the music for the opera “The Garden of Finzi-Continis.” It’ll be an original production of the Minnesota Opera, of the famed novel and movie about the approach of the Holocaust in Italy.

Keillor in his Christmas commentary is not the Garrison Keillor whose “Writer’s Almanac” has often featured Jewish writers and/or themes often, movingly, on the Jewish high holy days.

American stories
His Christmas commentary is also not consistent with Keillor’s usual deep knowledge of the relationship of music, culture and Americana. There has been smaltzy Christmas music written by Jews, but “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”), far from being “dreck,” is a quintessential American story. Bob Wells and Mel Torme wrote this song in 1944 wishing Americans a Merry Christmas — not “Happy Holidays” — as Americans of all faiths were dying in the service of our country. In 1946, the song skyrocketed in popularity when it was recorded by Nat King Cole.

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” another song written by Jewish songwriters, was the most requested song at Christmas USO shows during World War II. Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” debuted on NBC with Bing Crosby singing on Dec. 25, 1941, just two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack when Americans were resolute, but yearning for happier times. Leonard Bernstein’s orchestration of Handel’s “Messiah” is yet another example of the deep respect American Jewish musicians have for the celebration of Christmas and its musical expression in the United States.

Moreover, telling non-Christian Minnesotans to “buzz” out of Christmas is not reflective of Jewish-Christian relations in the Twin Cities or its salutary and inspirational arc of the past decades. Where once we had the hateful preachers such as William Bell Riley, William Herrstrom, and Luke Rader, we now have leading religious figures such as Rev. Grant Abbott, Rev. Peg Chemberlin, Rev. Steve Thom, Pastor Mac Hammond, Father Michael O’Connell, Rev. Gary Reierson, and Rev. Brian Rusche — who generate a different sort of “buzz” as stalwarts of interfaith relations. Today the Jewish community and so many others partner with the St. Paul Area Council of Churches, the Minnesota Council of Churches, Living Word Christian Center, Ascension Parish, the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches, and the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, to name a few. 

Working together
Diluting faith is not the goal of these endeavors but rather working together to enhance the public good while addressing with mutual respect the issues that inevitably arise between faith groups. Nobody wants to take Jesus out of Christmas. Hopefully, we will join together in loving our neighbor as ourselves, as the Torah originally taught and Jesus chose to reinforce by quoting it. This includes respecting the liturgical tradition of Unitarians to pray and sing with respect to their conscience and respect the right of all people to observe their faith as they see fit.

Steve Hunegs is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 12/23/2009 - 10:59 am.

    It seems as if Garrison Keillor is becoming even more of an eccentric, cranky old man with each passing day.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/23/2009 - 02:04 pm.

    I don’t know that Keillor was necessarily pointing his fingers at Jews per se. He was pointing out how the spirit of Christmas has been buried under the commercial Horn of Plenty. And he’s right about that.

    He was also pointing out, I think, how secular humanists, of which the Unitarian church is front and center, are slowly eroding the true meaning of Christian faith in general and Christmas in particular.

    When you see a dedicated leftist such as Garrison Keillor finally stand up and say “Enough!” (to say nothing of slamming that Socialist bulwark, Norway), perhaps some of his scary smart ilk might take a moment to put all that brainpower to good use and think about what he’s saying.

    By the way, when I used to live in Highland Park, I never considered my Christmas experience to be complete until the Orthodox Rabbi across the street tied his 4′ tall menorah on to the top of his car and bundled his entire family in for a tour of the neighborhood…I miss that.

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