Rabbi Olitzky is the proud father of twins. When they were infants, he would dress his son in blue and his daughter in pink. Clearly this was gender stereotyping, but it was the least one could do to add order to the infant twin chaos.
He was stunned and humbled when his son reached kindergarten and declared that his favorite Disney princess was Cinderella. This was not because Rabbi Olitzky was worried or ashamed that his son was a fan of a princess, but because his son clarified: “Abba, of course I love Cinderella — she’s the princess for boys because her dress is blue.” In that moment he realized how much he had erred and immediately became the student of his toddler teacher.
Pastor Baudhuin is also a father of twins — identical girls. One of his favorite pictures of them is one that made it onto the Metrodome Jumbotron at their first baseball game in matching pink Minnesota Twins garb. In the summer of 2019, “baby A” came out as trans, identifying as male and preferring he/his pronouns. His identical twin sister posted on Instagram: “y’all, I have an identical twin brother!” Since then Pastor Baudhuin and his wife have been on a journey through legal name and gender changes for their son, all the while realizing that every Halloween since second grade their son has chosen a male character for his costume.
Putting aside the issue and challenge of a binary gender model, let us be clear: Blue is not a “boys” color and pink is not a “girls” color. Further, both of us learned very quickly as young fathers (contrary to our own upbringings) that there are not boy toys and there are not girl toys. All children can play with dolls. All children can play with trucks. All children can play sports. All children can play video games. All children can enjoy books. All children can enjoy arts and crafts.
We therefore beg of the retailers that seek to woo us during this holiday season: Please stop the gender stereotyping! And pragmatically speaking, don’t you realize that you double your consumer base when you do not limit yourself to one side of the binary gender spectrum?
Frankly, we are OK with the consumerism and the gift-giving during this season. Still, the history of Christmas gift-giving is probably speculative at best — and yet still informs our pleas. We hate to be a “humbug,” but the truth is that the holiday of Christmas actually has little to do with the historical Jesus and is rooted in a response to pagan winter solstice celebrations, which involved pine trees, light, and gift-giving. There are some Christian biblical roots, in that the wise men (of which there were not three, but likely more like 50) gave newborn Jesus three gifts — not at all blue or specific to a baby boy. It is perhaps more likely, however, that gift-giving as the center of the Christmas holiday (while not necessarily a bad thing to do!) found its legs in Western culture — as our patterns of gender stereotyping have.
Gift-giving during Chanukah likely began in the early 20th century. There were efforts to mimic Christmas traditions, which were becoming less Christian-specific and more “American.” These 20th–century American Jews saw the joy brought to others during Christmas, and wanted to share that joy with their families. Hence, the parallel gift-giving season of Chanukah and Christmas was born — and also why we are speaking out. Because the gender stereotyping eliminates and prevents joy.
This is a complicated season, especially this year. In the Christian tradition one of the markers on the Advent Wreath (a distinctive pink one at that!) is joy. It is a joyful season. It is also a season when depression and loneliness thrive. Further, the myth of the notion that we are a “Christian nation” has led to rhetoric around the so called “war on Christmas.” Our plea is not that at all. In fact, the collective push for “happy holidays” is an effort to unite us. It is a way of naming the many holidays that arise out of the many cultures that make up the United States of America. And one way we can do that is not merely shifting from “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Chanukah” to “Happy holidays,” but breaking down our gender constructs and opening the season more to those who do not identify in binary ways in the gifts we give and the “gay apparel” we expect our kids to don. On second thought, maybe what we all need is more gay apparel!
During this season, we are taught both in Judaism and in Christianity to consider what poor messages we are reinforcing. We must commit ourselves to raising confident girls by watching not only the content of what we say but the context — Judah AND Judith should both be recounted as heroes of the Chanukah story. We must commit ourselves to avoiding compelling traditional masculinity on our boys — why does Mrs. Claus have to play second fiddle to Santa?
Regardless of gift-giving roots and the meaning around them, what we do know is that we each have seen our children’s eyes light up at the sight of gifts under a tree, around a menorah, or in whatever family and cultural rituals people celebrate. Let us continue to do that, but let us also name and confess the harm that can be done in the gender-typing that exists within it as well. And let us work collectively to break down those norms and create a world in which our children are liberated to explore their identity — because that would be the greatest gift of all.
Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky is a senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park. Pastor Paul Baudhuin is senior pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in St. Louis Park.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)