Say What You Mean: Merry Christmas

When I was a kid, our house was pitch black in a sea of red and green lights. Lit up reindeer and plastic santas greeted me from the neighbors’ yards. It was beautiful. I wished we could have the same decorations.

One year, I decided my parents really could benefit from the belief in Santa. And even though Santa didn’t even visit our Jewish home- erroneous!- I hatched a plan. I took a small plastic cat from my collection of toys and went over to my parents in the kitchen. 

Me: “Look what I found! Santa brought it.”

Mom distractedly: “That’s nice, honey.” 

I just wanted them to believe. 

They didn’t. 

We had Hanukkah. Growing up, I was always excited to see Hanukkah on TV. It became a sort of challenge, a Jewish “I spy.” Could you catch the half second spotlight of the hanukkiah during the Macy’s Christmas commercial? Did you see when 6ABC posted a Jewish star icon on the first night of Hanukkah during the five day weather forecast? We were always searching for ourselves in Christmas pop culture. “You know,” my mother would say without fail every year, “the song White Christmas? Written by a Jew.” She said this whenever the song came on the radio, beaming as proudly as if it had been her child who had written it. When Adam Sandler, on the rise as one of the most popular comedians of the 90s, came out with his Hanukkah song in 1994, Jewish children everywhere rejoiced. Before we could saturate ourselves with online Jewish content, we were desperate for scraps of recognition. 

Yet even then, before the current moment when everything became a partisan issue, including public health, my discontent began growing. Saying “Happy Holidays” vs. “Merry Christmas” became a line in the sand between “liberal” and “conservative” values. What was for many people an attempt to be more inclusive of us non-Christians was titled “The War on Christmas.” 

So I’ve made it a new policy to give up trying to convince privileged, white, Christian America that they are not actually in danger, that no one is actually waging a war against Christmas. Because the greatest affront to privileged people is a minor inconvenience which gets misconstrued as a loss of freedom. They don’t want to walk around wearing masks and they don’t want to have to say “Happy Holidays” when they really mean “Merry Christmas.”

The frustrating part of the whole War on Christmas saga is that I never asked you to include me! There is a particular Christian bumper sticker with the nativity scene and the slogan “Keep Christ in Christmas” which comes to mind. “Yes!” I usually proclaim out loud to myself or to any helpless passenger in my car, “Keep Christ in Christmas!” The holiday is in fact about Jesus. It’s a Christian holiday, not an American one. And when you try to make it about everyone it only makes me feel more alone. 

As any traditional Jew would tell you, Hanukkah is a minor holiday or, if you’re my Dad, “Hanukkah is nothing.” The opportunity to let Jewish kids feel less left out during the overcommercialization of Christmas was important for me as a kid, and as a future Jewish parent I’ll surely ramp up my Hanukkah excitement. But you know when I really want you to wish me a “Happy Holidays?” During the days leading up to Rosh Hashana or in the spring before Passover. I’d rather you put in the energy of recognizing my holidays. Instead of adding one lonely hanukkiah to the grand Christmas decor at the mall, I’d rather you not balk when I have to take time off for Rosh Hashanah or can’t make an appointment during the week of Sukkot.

I know not every Jew agrees with me. I know that there are many interfaith families for whom Hanukkah and Christmas is an opportunity to simultaneously honor both sides of their family traditions. As a rabbi, I also know that for many families Hanukkah is the only time they celebrate Jewishly. But Judaism has so much more to give than Hanukkah. We have holidays all year round, not to mention our weekly Shabbat, with which we celebrate our heritage, family, good food, and surviving centuries of antisemitism. So, the fact that Hanukkah is the most widely known and recognized Jewish holiday makes me furious. Hanukkah isn’t the best thing we have to offer! It can never be as much fun as Christmas. How could it?! And every year we put Hanukkah up to that unfair challenge. Against Christmas and all that the holiday has come to entail, Hanukkah will always fall short. Hanukkah is like the “best effort” award for Judaism, and I’m embarrassed having to take the celebratory picture every year with the first-place winner, Christmas. Enough already.  

I still bought an outdoor Hanukkah flag to exhibit proudly to neighbors during this month. I will honor the rabbinic commandment to place a hanukkiah in our window for all to see. But when I go to the grocery store and the cashier says, “Happy Holidays,” I know what she probably means is “Merry Christmas.” And without irony or any malice, I will lovingly respond, “Merry Christmas to you, too.”  

One comment on “Say What You Mean: Merry Christmas

  1. Miriam Kalman Friedman on

    I totally agree! People I know who are not Jewish mean well when they try to express best wishes for Hanukkah and ask what are plans are. Normally, we gather in Dallas for a party with our kids, grandkids and extended family. It’s fun because we’re all together eating great latkes and lots of other food, and we play a gift exchange game that turns competitive and creates a lively bidding war. It’s always fun! But it’s not religious. Religious happens for Passover and the High Holidays. So this Pandemic Year, Hanukkah came and went here without “plans”; my husband and I lit candles and I Zoom-made the Annual Latkes with my son. Together we each made 25 instead of our usual 85-100. It was a beautiful day we spent through our computers between Dallas and Houston, together. But it wasn’t centered around a religious belief; in truth, Hanukkah is more about each other, and we all create traditions to honor the ancient miracle. It’s not “our Christmas” at all. Both holidays are part of the winter solstice, traditions that goes back long before Christ or the Maccabees. But that’s another story–a long forgotten one.

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