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Baby Jesus in the lobby manger and other workplace concerns

In my office, we have a Christmas tree where we put gifts for underprivileged kids. Then there’s a Menorah and one of the Kwanzaa candelabras. This all seems to be in the generalized holiday spirit, and I’m okay with it. But then there’s a nativity scene in the lobby, complete with baby Jesus and all of the farm animals and the three wise men and a big old cross (which seems, from my limited understanding of the bible, to be a little anachronistic). That seems way over the line. I’m lapsed Catholic and it offends my sensibilities. I can only imagine how my Jewish and Muslim coworkers feel. Am I being a Grinch if I bring this up to HR?

Two arguments spring to mind for defending an office nativity scene. The first is that a nativity scene isn’t an overtly religious symbol.

Of course, that is insane. Saying that a nativity scene is simply part of the holiday spirit is like saying that a poster of Dick Cheney torching a straw doll wearing a Joe Biden mask is simply part of the democratic spirit.

On the list of important qualities that characterize your office’s nativity scene, seasonal spirit is at best fourth, clearly coming in behind liturgical, evangelical, and THAT IS A CRUCIFIX NEXT TO BABY JESUS.

Want to know who’s credited with creating the first nativity scene? Saint Francis of Assisi. And he didn’t do it just because he loved curling up on the couch on Christmas eve to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. He came up with the crèche because he wanted to convince other people to be Christian. The Christmas tree, on the other hand, predates Christianity — it grew out of a pagan ritual celebrating the winter solstice.

If you don’t believe me about any of this, ask Mike Pardee, who helps to run the Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University.

“Whether they consciously understand all the reasons for this difference or not, many people thus naturally feel more uncomfortable with the potential religious exclusivity of an arrangement depicting Jesus’ death,” says Pardee.

The second argument in favor of your office nativity scene is more honest and more complicated. It’s trotted out every Christmas, and boiled down, it sounds like this: Majority rules.

When I was seven or eight years old, my mother used to take me to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap. I’d climb up, my mom would snap a picture, and then Santa would ask what I want for Christmas. “Actually, I’m Jewish,” I’d say. And without skipping a beat, weary mall Santa would ask me what I wanted for Hanukkah.

My mother is five feet tall. She communicates entirely by reading aloud articles she cuts out from Modern Mensch. For my Bar Mitzvah gift, she gave me an application to medical school. My mother didn’t take me to see Santa because she wanted me to assimilate. She did it because she was confident that there wouldn’t be a poof of holy smoke from which I’d emerge reciting the Hail Mary. Think of my trip to Santa’s lap as a 90-second study abroad experience.

I share that charming anecdote to illustrate the fact that Christmas is both inescapable and the domain of everyone, Christians and non-Christians alike. For evidence, look no further than Hanukkah.

Up until a few generations ago, Hanukkah didn’t count for much. It wasn’t the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar. It wasn’t the second, and it wasn’t the third. By biblical lights, it isn’t even more important than Tu Bishvat, which is like Jewish Earth Day. And when you’re less important than Earth Day, you’re not very important.

Anyway, as Jews crept toward the mainstream and started going to the same elementary schools as Christians, they re-imagined Hanukkah as “Jewish Christmas,” complete with the full host of gifts so their kids wouldn’t feel left out. Before the first Hanukkah bush was shorn or Hanukkah Harry uttered his first words, all Jews got for Hanukkah was a buck fifty in candy coins. On the upside, chocolate is a terrific hedge against inflation.

And in that same spirit of meeting in the middle, public displays of Christmas cheer have taken on a decidedly non-religious tone as time has gone on: Rudolph, Frosty, Black Friday for better or for worse, even the Grinch that you’re afraid of turning into. Some of this is a slow descent into commercialization, but a lot of the transition has been informed by a spirit of generosity as we try to make sure everyone has a seat at the table for what is in practice surely a national holiday. What I’m trying to say here is that one of the things that keeps this whole American experiment from flying off the rails is that while majority rules, culture governs by consensus.

I think your office’s decision to put up a nativity scene is in violation of that spirit, and I think it’d be fine to bring it up to H.R. My guess is you wouldn’t be the first person in the office to do that. But make sure it’s your battle you’re fighting, and not someone else’s.

Dr. Arik Greenberg is the president of the Institute for Religious Tolerance, Peace and Justice. He also thinks you shouldn’t be paraphrasing what you imagine your Muslim or Jewish coworkers’ opinions might be. “While it’s important to make everyone feel welcome, we need to be aware that some folks are going to feel a bit left out no matter what, simply on account of their small numbers,” he says. “If we try to speak for them, we may do them a disservice.”

Feeling a little left out is okay by most of us. It sure beats having someone else assume that we’re simmering volcanos of righteous anger.

See you next Tuesday.


Got a question about how to act around the water cooler? Tongue planted firmly in cheek, we’ll find an adult to answer it. Email us at advice@chicagogrid.com.

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