It’s that time of year. The stores are full, the neighbor’s Christmas lights are shining and people are wishing you a “Merry Christmas.” There was a time when I’d get uncomfortable, even angry, if a salesperson, waitress or someone passing me on a sidewalk greeted me with the Christian equivalent of Gut Yontif. “Why do people assume that everyone celebrates this holiday?” I’d growl to myself.
As the years passed, I matured a bit, married and became actively engaged in a synagogue and in maintaining what I hope is a warm and welcoming Jewish home. A stranger wishing me “Merry Christmas” no longer bothers me. I know who I am. I don’t feel threatened. Maybe the person offering this greeting is trying to be nice, feeling the spirit of the season. This is a Christian majority country; most people celebrate Christmas. So what?
Efforts to morph Christmas into something generic are absurd, as though watering down one holiday will give all the others equal weight in the calendar of American events. And, of course, will spare some people the misfortune of being offended. It is a bit goofy when those humungous evergreens at the White House and City Hall are dubbed “holiday trees.” Really? If this term is meant to cover all bases, does that imply that there are Chanukah trees?
“I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees, Christmas trees,” writes Ben Stein. The actor and political commentator adds, “I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are, Christmas trees.”
Growing up in Quincy, MA, birthplace of two U.S. presidents and the Dropkick Murphys, I thought the whole world was Catholic. We were the only Jewish family in the neighborhood. Most of the kids on Hilda Street went to the local parochial school, also known as a “sister school,” referring to the nuns, whom the kids called “penguins.” Every morning I headed in one direction to Furnace Brook School, and they all headed in the opposite direction, to St. Agatha School in Milton.
In my school we sang Christmas songs, some with religious content. When the word “Jesus” came up I’d stop singing for a second. And I’m old enough to remember starting the day with the Lord’s Prayer, much of which I can still recite.
My aversion to being hailed by a “Merry Christmas” no doubt stemmed from Decembers past when I felt like an outsider. I often had to explain to shocked peers why I didn’t celebrate the holiday or why Chanukah wasn’t the “Jewish Christmas.” If only my family had known back then about the true meaning of Christmas: going to a movie and enjoying Chinese food.
“It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, 'Merry Christmas' to me. I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it,” says Stein. “It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year.”
As far as public displays of trees and nativity scenes, I’m not wild about them, but I don’t feel that my rights are being violated. The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It doesn’t say that all aspects of religion must be eliminated from the public sphere; it says that the government can’t establish a religion or prevent you from worshipping as you wish. As Stein notes, “I have no idea where the concept came from, that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat.” I know Chabad means well in setting up public menorahs, but in some peoples’ minds it might be seen as equating the two holidays, reverberating back to the Jewish Christmas idea. On the other hand, it’s kind of nice.
There is, however, one aspect of this holiday season to which I strongly object: being subjected to non-stop Christmas songs on the muzak track in stores, restaurants and other public places. One can only wonder why these soundtracks seem to specialize in the most annoying tunes. I refer to such classics as “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and the ear-crushing “Feliz Navidad” by Jose Feliciano. The worst part is when the songs get stuck in your brain and you find yourself humming “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”
I have made peace with the festive and commercial stretch from Thanksgiving (more like Halloween these days) to December 25th. I avoid Black Friday. I do not celebrate Chanukah as a competitive holiday. And if someone wishes me a “Merry Christmas,” I say, “You, too.”