Sunday, December 23, 2007

What Gentiles should Know about the "Holiday Season"

by a cranky Jew
(revised from last year and re-posted by popular demand. feedback welcome as always.)

I do not celebrate Christmas.

Please don’t tell me to have a Merry Christmas. This is comparable to telling a Canadian happy 4th of July.

Christmas is not a “secular” or “American” holiday. It is a Christian holiday.
If you celebrate it in a secular way, it is still a secular Christian holiday. (If I celebrate Pesach/Passover in a humanist style, without reference to G-d, is it then an “American” holiday? No. It’s a secular Jewish holiday, and it’s no more universal without the G-d language than with it.)

Some Jews do celebrate Christmas. That doesn't make it a Jewish holiday.
Jews may celebrate Christmas for many reasons. Many Jews have Christians in their family. Most Jews in the US grow up in predominantly Christian communities. Many Jews have tried to assimilate over the generations, and that has meant adopting Christian practices like having a Christmas tree. It's still a Christian holiday. Just because you know a Jew who celebrates Christmas, doesn't give you the prerogative to expect or require me to celebrate, too.

Chanukah is not a Jewish version of Christmas.

Christmas is an important holiday for Christians, based on one of the central stories of the Christian faith. Chanukah is not even a particularly religious holiday. It is, primarily, a cultural/historical holiday commemorating a military victory of a group of Jews against imperial oppressors (specifically, Syrian Greeks). It’s kinda like the aforementioned 4th of July. Only older, and with miracles.

Chanukah does not occur on December 25th.

It is an eight-day festival beginning on 25 Kislev by the Jewish calendar, which is a lunar /solar calendar. The corresponding date on the Gregorian calendar, the one commonly used in public life, ranges from mid-November through late December. Therefore, do not tell me to have a happy Chanukah unless you know when Chanukah falls this year, and that it’s not over. Cheat sheet for 2007/5768: Chanukah is way over.

Chanukah may be spelled several ways
Hanukkah, Hanukah, Chanukkah, Chanukah, etc. That’s because it’s a Hebrew word, and it’s actually spelled like this: חֲנוּכָּה. Chanukah is probably the closest transliteration for the Hebrew - more like Channikke for the Yiddish. It sounds like it looks, only the initial H or Ch sounds like the guttural sound at the end of the composer Bach.
I don’t care how you spell it. Just don’t tell me how weird it is that it has multiple spellings. I’m over it. If you can’t say the Ch sound without spitting on me, then just say H and keep your germs to yourself.

There’s no such thing as a Chanukah bush.

Did you really need to be told that? Christian hegemony appropriated the tradition from Celtic pagans, and now is trying to impose it on Jews. We already have pretty stuff for the holiday. We don’t need Jew-ish-ified trees, wreathes, elves or mistletoe.

Some Jews Have Chanukah Bushes.

See above, under "Some Jews Celebrate Christmas"

Chanukah is not a good excuse to tell me about your best friend, neighbor, or distant relative who is a Jew.

If you didn’t care enough to tell me the rest of the year, then I don’t care to hear about it now.

Don’t try to impress me with how much you know about Chanukah or about Judaism.

It’s a safe bet I know a whole lot more than that about Christmas and Christianity. Not cause I’m so smart or so studied. Just cause y’all are everywhere.

“Happy Holidays” is not an acceptable secular substitute for “Merry Christmas.”
No matter what words you use, we both know you’re only saying it because of Christmas. Otherwise, you would say it in September/October and March/April, when I’m observing major religious holidays, as well as in December, when you are.

This is not about your Free Speech.

This year, a few people who should know better have said thing to me about Christmas that sound suspiciously like the ultra-conservative "war on Christmas" rhetoric. Stuff like, "Department stories cannot dictate how their employees greet customers during the holidays. If they want to say Merry Christmas, that's their free speech." Or "People (read: Jews) can't stop people (read: Christians) from putting up Christmas decorations in the town square. That's their free speech."
Good try, but, this is not about your free speech. Employees do not have the right to say whatever they want while they're working. They sell their free speech along with their labor during the hours they're getting paid. And despite federal law to the contrary, I do not buy the money=speech equation. Go ahead, speak about Christmas all you want. But don't use public funds to speak about Christmas.
Anyway, no one is trying to stop you from saying Merry Christmas to your friends and loved ones, or on your Christmas cards. That's exactly where the greeting belongs. I just don't want you saying it to me, especially not all day every day for all of December. And I really don't want to pay for your Christmas decorations through public funds, and be subjected to them in public spaces.


Dane said...

Additional thoughts from another sometimes-cranky Jew:

If I call you out on something - say, if I say, "Thanks, but I'm Jewish" in response to your "Merry Christmas" - don't argue with me. Do not tell me to "Have a Merry Christmas anyway," do not tell me that "[I] don't have to be Christian to have a Merry Christmas" and please, please, don't cite any of the aforementioned list items as evidence that I'm obligated to have a Merry Christmas.

I don't do merry. If you advised me to have a pleasant Christmas, I might be more amenable to it. Seeing Sweeney Todd or the Golden Compass and several cartons of take out Chinese food is definitely a pleasant way to spend Christmas. But merry? I don't think I've ever been merry in my life. Sorry folks, it's just not in my emotional capacity to reach merry. I'm not sure I even know what merry looks like, so better luck elsewhere.

That said, if you decide to move past Christmas, and wish me a Happy New Year, you're also SOL. You've missed my new year by a few months, and boy, are you sorry you did. The apples this year were especially tasty.

And with that, have a pleasant Kwanzaa (on Dec. 26-Jan. 1), however you choose to spend it.

Sarah B said...


Thank you, Davey! I've been complaining about many of these things for years, but even my Jewish relatives and friends usually respond by talking about good intentions. Someone wished me Merry Christmas - "They're just trying to be nice!" Okay, fine, I'm sure they are. But I don't "try to be nice" by wishing people a Happy Chanukah (or, for that matter, a K'tiva v'Chatima Tova) regardless of their actual religious affiliation. And I don't appreciate it when the equivalent thing is done to me.

I was beginning to think I was the only one who felt that way. Nice to know that I'm not.

- Another cranky Jew, from the same college Jewish org as Dane. (I don't like posting my full name online, but I hope I've given you enough information to figure out who I am.)

GregB said...

Brilliant! My pal Dane referred me here for some reference in support of a little book I'm writing (The Bitter Single Guy's Holiday Survival Guide).

I've suspected many of the points you make Davey (the tyranny of putting a Christian view on everything, for example).

But I have to ask (perhaps more to Dane since it was her point): In your example of politely declining the Merry Christmas wish, give a gentile a hand here...what IS an appropriate response. It seems rude, after you say "I'm Jewish" to simply say "OK, never mind."

To Davey's point, wishing Happy Chanukah (by whatever spelling) is a moving target, so also risky.

Just wantin' to do it right.

That question aside, I love your writing Davey.


Dane said...

Y'know, no one's ever asked me that before. I imagine the best way for the interaction to go might be something like this:

"Merry Christmas!"

"Thanks, but I'm Jewish."

"Oh, I'm sorry - when's Chanukah this year?"

I think I'd be moderately pleased with that response. Maybe others have better ideas though. I'll direct a few thoughtful Jews back to this page and see what they come up with.

Sheira said...

to GregB:

I can only speak for myself, but I know I would generally appreciate a genuine "Oh, sorry."

If it happens to also be Channukah at the time, a "happy Channukah" is nice, but I've given up on expecting/hoping that everyone pays attention to things like that. I live in a relatively "Jewish area," but if I'm not shopping in a Kosher grocery store... what reason do I realistically have for thinking that some random Shmoe is going to magically know when Channukah is?

-Dane & Sarah B's classmate

Davey says ... said...

My recommendation: Do not tell anyone "Merry Christmas" unless you actually know that they celebrate Christmas. If in doubt you can ask, "Do you celebrate Christmas?" If they say no, you can tell them to have a nice day, weekend, or whatever it is. Or you can get to know them better by having a more in-depth conversation about where they're coming from.

Sarah B said...

I'm with Davey on this one. If you only say "Merry Christmas" to people you actually know celebrate Christmas, you can avoid altogether the issue of what to say if they turn out to be Jewish. And when in doubt, ask. I think I'd be thrilled to have someone actually ask me if I celebrate Christmas instead of just assuming I do.

If you ask and the person says "no, I'm Jewish," I like Dane's response of "When's Chanukah this year?" It shows that you are aware that Chanukah and Christmas are not equivalent and that they don't always happen at the same time - a fact that many people tend not to pay attention to. I'd be pretty pleased with that, too.

Anonymous said...

I was looking for chocolate gold coins and somehow stumbled on to this website. I found it interesting to read. the only comment i have is that my work actually tells me to say "happy holidays" when people leave the store around Christmas time (i work at Target). I usually go with the generic have a nice day/night instead (mostly because i have had the fore mentioned conversations after saying merry Christmas. Also, Christmas season just means i work more and there are crankier people), but it's nice to know that "happy holidays" is offensive to some people too. So thanks for the info and i apologize as a christian since i know we can be totally insufferable and insensitive to people of other religions.