How Hanukkah Came to the White House: Now and Then, an interesting December 2 piece in the Forward by Jonathan D. Sarna, coincidentally documents the (much denied) decline of Christmas:
For most of the 20th century, the only December holiday that gained White House recognition was Christmas. Calvin Coolidge inaugurated the practice of lighting an official White House Christmas tree in 1923, and he also delivered the first formal presidential Christmas message. He assumed, as most Americans of his day did, that everybody celebrated Christmas. In 1927, he proclaimed that â€?Christmas is not a time or a season, but a state of mind.â€? If we focus on its message, Coolidge explained, â€?there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.â€? Silent Cal, so far as I can determine, uttered not one word about Hanukkah.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom the American Jewish community adulated, proved no more sensitive when it came to Hanukkah. He sent evocative Christmas cards to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and other friends in the Jewish community, and declared that Christmas was a national holiday â€?because the teachings of Christ are fundamental to our lives.â€? His successor, Harry Truman, another favorite of the Jewish community, echoed Roosevelt in his Christmas message to the nation. He called upon Americans to â€?put our trust in the unerring Star which guided the Wise Men to the Manger of Bethlehem.â€?
Perhaps the most astonishing of all White House Christmas messages was delivered by a man who should have known all about Hanukkah since he was born just blocks away from a large synagogue in Brookline, Mass., and had many Jewish friends and supporters. Yet John F. Kennedy egregiously declared in 1962 that â€?Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, as well as Christians, pause from their labors on the 25th day of December to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace.â€? He believed (or, at least, his speechwriter believed) that â€?there could be no more striking proof that Christmas is truly the universal holiday of all men.â€?
Particularly significantly in the light of Tom's article, Sarna notes:
"The first president to host an official White House Hanukkah party, and the first to actually light a menorah in the White House residence, was George W. Bush, beginning in both cases in 2001...The annual Hanukkah party also underscored Bushâ€™s deepening bonds with Orthodox Jews, the Jewish religious stream most sympathetic to his â€?faith-basedâ€? agenda. Hasidic leaders in distinctive garb regularly appeared at these parties, and beginning in 2005 (after an embarrassment in 2004 when kosher and non-kosher foods were mixed up), the parties became completely kosher.
"Barack Obama is thus only the second president in history ever to hold a White House Hanukkah party."
The terrible time that Obama is having about how many invitations have been issued to his Hanukkah party is quite enough to make anyone feels sorry for him.
But perhaps we should feel sorrier for Christmas.