First there was the congresswoman who saved Christmas. Then there was the congressman who rescued Chanukah, Kwanzaa and Ramadan. Then, somewhere in between, there was the complaint about elf tossing. Okay, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) was kidding about those elves, but last week’s Great Congressional Debate about Christmas, Chanukah and just about everything else started out as very, very serious.
“Christmas has been declared politically incorrect,” Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.) said on Dec. 14, introducing her resolution “expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that those who celebrate Christmas believe that the symbols and traditions of Christmas should be protected.”
Davis’ resolution was the latest salvo in the “Christmas wars,” this year’s cultural debate over how religious the holiday should be. It has played out on talk shows, in schools, in public squares and even at department stores; now it had come, inevitably, to Congress.
The resolution, H. Res. 579, “strongly disapproves of attempts to ban references to Christmas and expresses support for the use of these symbols and traditions.”
“Any sign or even mention of Christmas in public can lead to complaints, litigation, protest and threats,” Davis warned. “America’s favorite holiday is being twisted beyond recognition.”
“Did something happen when I was not looking?” asked Ackerman, known as one of Congress’ quickest wits. “Did somebody mug Santa Claus? Is somebody engaging in elf tossing?”
More seriously, other Democrats accused Davis, a Virginian known for her closeness to the pro-Israel lobby, of trampling over the sensibilities of non-Christians.
“Our country has come simply to be tolerant of the fact that we are from many faiths, and we do not want to insult anybody,” said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). “And I say to you that, far from references to Christmas needing to be supported, they are glorified, and we all know it.”
Norton chided Davis to “understand how ‘happy holidays’ developed. It developed out of a country, first and foremost, where there was rampant anti-Semitism.”
Two New York Jewish Democrats, Reps. Anthony Weiner and Steve Israel, asked Davis to amend the resolution to include Chanukah, Kwanzaa and Ramadan.
She said no, and Weiner waxed almost Shakespearean. Or maybe Seussian.
“The symbols of Chanukah are not valuable?” Weiner said. “Sure, they are, I think. The symbols of Kwanzaa are not valuable to some? Sure, they are. I cannot imagine why the gentlewoman who is the sponsor of this, who says that she speaks from a sense of inclusion, would not want to include those. Are those not worthy of being protected? What is the message that is being sent?”
Rep. Chris Porter, a Nevada Republican who moved to suspend the House rules so Davis’ bill could come to the floor, interrupted Weiner.
“I am, again, not certain this is the time for the debate,” Porter said.
That puzzled Weiner. “It is exactly the place to debate,” he said. “We are on the floor of the House of Representatives.”
In fact, just minutes earlier, helping to introduce the bill, Porter could hardly contain himself. “What is great about America is we can debate Christmas on the House floor,” Porter said.
Davis later told JTA that according to House rules, she could not amend a suspension resolution, one that suspends scheduled debate for a short period to pass legislation that is more symbolic than practical.
Rep. Steve Israel’s office said later that Israel had checked with the House parliamentarian, who reported that the bill’s lead sponsor — in this case Davis — was able to amend the bill.
Whatever the case, Davis said that adding other holidays was not the point — the threat was to Christmas, not the other holidays.
“Nothing says you have to call a menorah a holiday candle, like you call a Christmas tree a ‘friendship tree,’ ” she said. If Jews did feel Chanukah was under threat, she said, she would happily support a resolution.
Within two days, Rep. Israel was there for her: On Friday, he formally submitted H. Res. 615 which replicates Davis’ bill exactly, substituting Chanukah, Ramadan and Kwanzaa for Christmas. It has yet to come to the floor.
Davis seemed at a loss over the Jewish objections to the resolution — she said she had run the language by her close Jewish friend, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and he approved, with a small amendment, adding the phrase “those who celebrate Christmas” to the bill’s language to make it clear the intent was not to force the holiday on those who did not celebrate.
“I thought I had settled whatever kind of controversy might upset my friends,” she said.
That’s not quite how Engel remembered it, although he warmly reciprocated Davis’ friendship.
Instead, Engel said, he suggested the modification only after he realized he could not persuade Davis to back away from the resolution.
“It would be better if we didn’t have this bill to vote on, it would be better to keep Congress out of religion, it would be better if it were to go on a voice vote,” Engel said, referring to Davis’ insistence on a roll call, a tactic used to embarrass lawmakers if they vote in the minority on a popular resolution.
On Dec. 15 at midday, he was still anguishing over which way to vote.
By the day’s end, the matter was settled: the resolution passed in a roll call, 401-22, with five others voting “present” and five not voting.
Some Jewish groups were not pleased. “To understand the pernicious nature of this resolution one must first understand that no such ban or attempted ban against Christmas exists,” the American Jewish Congress said in a statement. “Those who wish to marshal the power of government to tip the balance in favor of one side or the other do so in blatant disregard of our nation’s long established tradition of religious liberty.”
The Orthodox Union, which cultivates friends among devout Christians in Congress, did not endorse the bill but noted that — along with another resolution that passed this week calling for an American Jewish History Month — it was in keeping with “recognition and support for religious and cultural diversity.”
Engel and Weiner were among 17 Jews who voted “Yea.” Why Weiner? Could it be because he and Davis are neighbors in terms of their offices in the Longworth building? Ackerman was one of five Jews voting “Nay,” three — including Israel — voted “Present” and one, Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) was recorded as not voting.
But perhaps the last word was best left to Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) who just commemorated his 50th anniversary in the House. He composed a poem in anticipation of Davis’ bill.
“T’was the week before Christmas and all through the House, no bills were passed ’bout which Fox News could grouse. Wait, we need a distraction, something divisive and wily, a fabrication straight from the mouth of O’Reilly. We will pretend Christmas is under attack, hold a vote to save it, then pat ourselves on the back.”
Dingell, by the way, voted “Yea.”
Jewish Representatives voting ‘Yea’ on H. Res. 579: Berman (D-Calif.), Davis (D-Calif.), Filner (D-Calif.), Lantos (D-Calif.), Schiff (D-Calif.), Sherman (D-Calif.), Waxman (D-Calif.), Cardin (D-Md.), Frank (D-Mass.), Levin (D-Mich.), Berkley (D-Nev.), Rothman (D-N.J.), Engel (D-N.Y.), Nadler (D-N.Y.), Weiner (D-N.Y.), Cantor (D-Va.), Sanders (I-Vt.).
Jewish Representatives voting ‘Nay’ on H. Res. 579: Harman (D-Calif.), Wexler (D-Fla.), Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Ackerman (D-N.Y.).
Jewish Representatives voting ‘Present’ on H. Res. 579: Israel (D-N.Y.), Lowey (D-N.Y.), Schwartz (D-Pa.).
Jewish Representatives who did not cast a vote on H. Res. 579: Emanuel (D-Ill.).
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.