Thursday, December 19, 2019

I’m Jewish. Please Wish Me a Merry Christmas

Season’s greetings mean more when they celebrate America’s diversity by acknowledging our religious differences.


It was the day before Thanksgiving, and I was at my local coffee shop in New Haven, Conn. I had just finished ordering my preferred espresso drink, and as I paid for it, the barista said to me, with good cheer, “Happy Thanksgiving, if you celebrate it.” I was genuinely nonplused, and so, without considering how rude it might sound, I blurted back, “Who doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving?”

As it turned out, the barista was right there with me. “I know, right?” she said. “But I wished someone a happy Thanksgiving yesterday, and she got annoyed and said, ‘Not my holiday.’ So I’m just being careful.” I felt her pain. Nobody likes to offend, and Lord knows people do take offense.

As Christmas approaches, that worry becomes particularly acute: What to wish people as Dec. 25 nears? My advice in this season—when we proffer many season’s greetings, to strangers of indeterminate beliefs—is just what I said to the barista about Thanksgiving: “Don’t be so careful. Just say what you feel.” Yes, as a proud American Jew, I hereby give permission to my Christian, and secular but Christmas-minded, friends to keep alive the robust, specific “Merry Christmas,” abjuring the weak, vague “Happy Holidays.”

That’s right, Christmas lovers. Keep “Merry Christmas” alive on your annual card, with the creepy portrait of your family (a bit too happily posed) on one side, the news of your 5-year-old son’s latest novel and his younger sister’s coding genius on the other. Keep it alive in the longer, single-spaced, double-sided holiday letter, with its detailed explanations of your new job, your old hernia issues and your cat’s valiant battle with cancer. Keep it alive in your inflatable yard displays.

And by all means, keep it alive in your encounter with this Jewish stranger on the street, at the post office or browsing at the bookstore. It’s a perfectly fine way to greet me, even though Hanukkah is my seasonal holiday (albeit one of relatively little religious import). My Christmas observance is spending a day off wearing pajamas, watching movies with my wife, children and dogs. Others may believe what they will; for me, Christmas marks the birth of no savior, nobody who rose from the dead, nobody who walked on water. I will mark the day by eating Chinese food, in the great tradition of my people.

I welcome “Merry Christmas” because I am a Jew. As a member of a minority tribe, raising children to be proud bearers of a tradition foreign to most of their countrymen, I’m glad that we are reminded, from time to time, that we are surrounded by people unlike us: a mix of believing Christians and the secular Christian-ish, those whose cultural assumptions are influenced by Christianity. Asking Christians to repress their benign cultural folkways does nothing to increase tolerance; if anything, it just encourages Jews to forget our own distinctiveness. Of course, many Jews are happy to forget their distinctiveness, but that’s no reason to conscript other groups in the project of blanching all cultural differences.

Truly celebrating our country’s growing diversity should mean that all groups feel free to announce their uniqueness, to encounter the other with a strong sense of self.

So far I am discussing a hypothetical encounter between a sales clerk and a customer, in which case the clerk is playing the odds: Most people are Christmas people. But the clerk may also be introducing himself, after a fashion—being true to who he is. When one stranger offers a “Merry Christmas” to another, he is saying something about himself, something like: “I am hoping that I have a merry Christmas, and I wish one for you, too.” The second stranger can then respond however she likes. She can, of course, say, “You too.” Or, “We’ll see what Santa brings me.” Or, “Fat chance.

It’s both sensitive and joyful to have a culture in which we name our holidays, own them, share them.

But she might equally choose, “Thank you so much, but my holiday is Hanukkah.” That is a genuinely pluralistic encounter, much more so than a “Happy Holidays” met with “And to you, too!” Now, when there is a pre-existing relationship, everything changes. If I meet a friend who knows that I am of the Hebrew persuasion, hearing “Merry Christmas” would indeed seem odd. Instead, my friend might reasonably select “Happy Hanukkah.” And that’s the spirit, isn’t it? In that spirit, the educated, civic-minded Christian or Jew may greet Muslim friends during the month of Ramadan with a hearty “Ramadan Mubarak!”—blessed Ramadan. On crossing paths with the neighborhood Wiccan around Christmastime, wish her a happy Solstice. The “Seinfeld” fan may appreciate being met with, “A Festivus for the rest of us!” And the village atheist? I recommend, “Cherish this life, in case it is all there is!”

And however these conversations go, no party should take offense. The stakes aren’t very high, after all. Nobody has declared war on Christmas, nor is anybody trying to force us non-Christians into submission. The point is that we can all win. It’s both culturally sensitive and joyful to have a culture in which we name our holidays, own them, share them. This practice requires good cheer, a minimum of self-righteousness and a high threshold for taking offense.

Such a culture, one of both “Merry Christmas” and “Ramadan Mubarak,” is also one that exalts private intimacies over public show. I am happy for Christians to greet me with “Merry Christmas,” but that doesn’t mean I think the public high school should offer Christian prayers over the loudspeaker before the Friday night football game. The first is an act of friendship, the latter is just bullying. And with that, my friends, I place this wisdom in your Christmas stocking, as I wish you a happy 2020. Or, as the Jewish calendar has it, 5780.

Mr. Oppenheimer writes frequently on religion. He is a co-author of “The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia.



ScienceABC123 said...

"Merry Christmas" Mark Oppenheimer

Bill R. said...

When I was young, one of my Dad's best friends was Jewish. He would come over in the evenings and spend time with him and our family. When it came time to leave he would wish us all a Merry Christmas and we would wish him a Happy Hanukkah. I guess without really thinking about it we were taught tolerance at a young age.

Bird of Paradise said...

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you