Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Jew that Stole Christmas . . . or, never justifying a "Bryan Adams Situation"

Back in 1994 I attended Lester B. Pearson College. An international college nestled in the woods of Vancouver Island. It was meant to be an idyllic place where young student from 100-some countries co-mingled on full scholarship and sought to achieve the ever-elusive "international understanding".

And then it was Christmas Time. Which, as far as I can tell, starts sometime in November. At Pearson, the long-time groundskeeper (what was his name again) performed his labour of love and installed his Christmas lights all over the school cafeteria - which if i recall correctly, was the most prominent and widely used building on campus.

In a "village meeting" I stood up and raised what I thought was an apparent contradiction, that a school pledging in its mandate to celebrate internationalism was, by all appearances, endorsing Christmas as its primary cultural holiday. I really thought that the contradiction was self-evident and was utterly flustered and demoralized by the rancourous response. There I was, punting the sacred poodle.

Now, fifteen years later, my son is a little self-identifying jew, navigating his first year in public school. In the "progressive" city of Vancouver, in a school that is widely regarded as one of the "best" in the district, I accompanied my son to the school-wide weekly Monday morning assembly (November 30). Well, his eye-sight is a little better then mine and he's reading the writing on the flip-chart paper that is posted at the front of the gymnasium. He says to me: "Dad, they're not going to make us sing another Christmas song are they?" I squint to make out the lyrics . . . "Christmas Time by Bryan Adams . . . " "No." I tell him, searching the walls for other songs . .. . "They wouldn't do that." But sure enough they do. They announce, that there is a "New School Song that all students will learn."

The lyrics, to my ears, are pretty diabolical.

. . . There's something about Christmas time 
something about Christmas time 
that makes you wish it was Christmas everyday 

I see my poor little son trying so hard to read the words and sing them into the catchy little pop tune. He's doing it so earnestly and I'm looking around to see if anyone else is having a hard time processing what is going on. The song ends and a teacher from the crowd prompts the presenting teacher to explain why the song is going to be so important to the school. We're told that at the "Christmas Assembly" every kid is going to sing it all together as the finale - a unifying anthem of the school to bring everyone together, Tapes of the song will be sent to all classroom teachers, the printed lyrics will be sent home with the kids, it will be practiced between assemblies and than practiced again all together, as the entire school at every future assembly until the big Christmas Concert. No really, I kid you not.

So, I make a bee-line for the vice-principal who is watching at the back of the gym with a pleasant grin. I try to engage her in a "do you think this is okay" kind of discussion. And yes, she does think it's okay. Very okay in fact.

So I go into mutter-mode. Ranting to myself, forming out an extended monologue, enacting conversations, practicing my speech to the UN. When I get to my office I can't help myself from calling the Vancouver School Board and learn that the school board does indeed have a lovely well thought through policy on Racism and Multiculturalism. The policy even goes so far as to define and discuss ethnocentrism.  Now, I'm in business.

A few choicely written e-mails that Monday and then the next morning when I call at 8:00am the school principal is ready to see me.

She has all manner of explanation ready for me: "their intention in choosing that the song wasn't to promote Christmas . . . ." (uhm, the name of the song is Christmas Time ). . . She tells me that the teachers work hard (yes, lots of bigots work hard at what they do - so what?) . . . and that teachers do so much unpaid extra-curricular work to help build a better school (the event occurred during school hours). And by now, it's getting really too easy and I'm wondering why this lady is digging herself deeper and deeper into the Bryan Adams quagmire.

Later, talking it over with my colleagues from Artifact Films, we understand well that once you've pulled a Bryan Adams, it's just best to let go. There is never anything to be gained from justifying a "Bryan Adam's Situation."

"A Bryan Adams Situation" def. A culturally insensitive incident, with traits of passionate and kitschy indignation, that compels otherwise potentially intelligent people to utter increasingly stupid justifications in support of cliched internalized commercial nonsense.  usage: "If i were you, i wouldn't get involved in that Bryan Adams Situation."

So life moves on, a massive Christmas tree is installed in the school library, the "Christmas Time" hand-outs are sent home with every primary kid as promised, and the school hallways are abuzz with the whimpering noise of pre-pubescent girls emulating Mr. Adam's passionate cadence.

I'm back in the principal's office on Thursday this time with both the Principal and Vice-Principal. Now I'm being told that installing dead trees in a school in December has nothing to do with Christmas. "Lots of cultures use trees for decoration . . ." The quagmire is growing. I'm given a revised list of songs for the "Winter Concert". They've added a Jewish song (Shalom Harereen sic.), might try to teach the kids a Kwanzaa song and have reordered the schedule so that Bryan Adams has been demoted from the finale. They seem genuinely pleased to have the Christmas-specific content down to under 75%. I try to explain that I don't want Hanukkah elevated to stand alongside Christmas, whether the school does something for Hanukkah or not, my point is that I don't want to feel like I'm sending my kid to a secular Christian school. They both look confused. I open my computer where I have a screenshot of the on-line school calendar for December. Wreaths and reindeers a big Christmas tree for Christmas Day and a nice star for Christmas eve and not a heck of a lot else. I explain that to me, if the auditorium is overflowing with Christmas songs (and only Christmas songs) if kids are being sent home with Christmas materials (and only Christmas materials) if huge Christmas artifacts (and only Christmas artifacts) are displayed in the must prominent of  the school's public spaces and, if the schools website promotes (and only promotes Christmas) it starts to seem reasonable to assume that the school has slight bias towards one cultural holiday.

Meanwhile, I get return call from the CJC (Canadian Jewish Congress) they tell me that they are adverse to getting involved in school celebrations of Christmas - too much like killing cute puppy dogs.

The next morning, the school librarian (who also apparently designs the website) chases down my wife in the school asking her where to find "the dates". "Which dates?" my wife asks. "The dates, all of the dates." the librarian responds. My wife is given a stick-tab with the librarian's e-mail address so that she can forward along "the dates". Now, we are beginning to wonder if there is a secret sect of Bryan Adams that has infiltrated this poor public school. We cannot understand how the librarian, whose chief responsibility is as a resource person can't find a multicultural calendar. I call the principle. She tells me the librarian is very busy and sometimes can't get to everything on her own. "Putting up Christmas trees?" I ask. "Zev. . . ." I am being warned. "Try typing 'multi-faith calendar 2009-2010' into google. I suggest. While I have her on the phone I tell her that my son is very confused about why there is a random book about Passover displayed in the school office. I tell her that Passover is like 4 moths away. My wife is actually livid about this one. Being disregarded sucks but being tokenized feels worst. I think history has proved out that it is in fact better to be ignored than owned. . . .

And so now, my muttering has intensified and my CC lists are growing. I'm rolling now. A meeting this past Tuesday with the principal, vice-principal and . . . the Board's Anti-Discrimination and Multicultural consultant. Does she have some deep down secret love for Bryan Adams that will betray her in the moment of truth turning her otherwise fine function neuro cells into a tepid swamp juice? No. She is a fine sensible person who is able to help navigate the administration to a reasonable place of compromise.

Is the problem solved? Not particularly, but, at the end of the day, they ain't gonna install a second Christmas tree, they're gonna make some-kind of an apology/statement before the "winter concert" and they'll be a heck of a lot more restrained in their secular Christian zeal in the future. Enough said from the Jew that tried to steal Christmas.


  1. Ah Zev! I love it that you still fight and give a shit! I think I was one of the rancorous dissenters back at Pearson. Still am, maybe. I am definitley NOT a christian, but I do like all that Christmas stuff. We horrified my sister's ex BF by singing Christmas songs with gusto, then saying it was a pity there's just so damned much Jesus in them.

    I say the problem is that those Christians stole a perfectly good pagan holiday.


  2. i just wasn't a popular kid back then. now i'm hanging out with all the cool kids and can laugh with them about what a pain in the ass i am. still angsty but less . .. . angsty.

  3. Today we were singing " there's something about Christmas time that just makes you wish Christmas would just go away". So not nice... but I have had enough already and it is only the beginning of December.

  4. wow zev... thanks for a great read. you would be horrified at how things are down here in cape town. south africa is NOT a culturally sensitive country (i suspect being culturally sensitive is a first world luxury that people here just don't have the time for). anyway, both scarlett and gemma's schools are in full christmas mode and in particular scarlett's school is over the top. for the last three weeks, all activities have revolved around christmas. she brought home a big box full of her chistmas arts and crafts, lots of pictures of santa and reindeer and wreaths etc. she had a christmas concert (not a holiday concert) where they only sang christmas carols. they had a christmas party today (not an end of the school year party) where santa made an appearance and gave all the kids toys out of his sack. it's over the top but as the ONLY jew in the school, i don't feel as though i could do anything about it.... and i certainly do not want to be the (only) jew that stole christmas. i also don't have the energy or passion that you have about these things.

    but as much over saturation of christmas that scarlett (and gemma) are getting at the moment, i got a little triumph when scarlett asked me this week when are we going to light the 'chanuakah lights'. i didn't even prompt her. ha! take that santa!

    sending you lots of love zev

  5. hm.... after reading what i just wrote i need to add something. south africa is a racially sensitive country, just not a culturally sensitive country.

    looking forward to your next post!

  6. Zev, is your kid's school in the past? It sounds exactly like Palmerston Public School cira 1961. Please continue to fight the good fight.

  7. Emilie, who has to teach in as christiocentric a district as Pittsburgh, thinks you are jousting at windmills. I, on the other hand, think you are awesome for speaking truth to power.

    happy חֲנֻכָּה

  8. I say squash them puppy dogs!

  9. Yo, Wolf. Still punching above your weight. I would have loved to see Mia's eyes when queried about "the dates". I gotta say I get a little warm wash when I plug in the tree lights for the first time each year, but it's got dick to do with dogma. Mazel tov and love to you and Mia and Ash and Hazel, Danger and Annie p s Did Germany survive your approbation? Shalom friends

  10. hey danger and annie, glad you found your way over here. germany survived my first foray, but i'm not sure that i'd wager on them for the second. . . . much love and respect to you both.

  11. loved reading this, zev.

  12. Merry Christmas you radical. Brian A. is a photog, too. C'mon, tell us how you really feel. Peace out, bro. Danger