Thursday, December 03, 2009

What Gentiles Should Know about the Holiday Season

by a cranky Jew
(revised from previous years 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.

Chanukah is not a Jewish version of Christmas.

Christmas is an important holiday for most contemporary 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 one group of Jews, who advocated maintaining a traditional Jewish culture separate from that of the ruling empire, over another group of Jews, who advocated cooperating with imperial rulers and assimilating into the imperial (Hellenic/Syrian) culture.

It’s kinda like the aforementioned 4th of July. Only older, and with miracles.

The only reason Chanukah is such a big deal in the U.S. is because of its proximity to Christmas.

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 2009/5770: Chanukah begins at sundown on Friday, December 11.

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.

In recent years, a few people who should know better have said things to me about Christmas that sound suspiciously like the ultra-conservative "war on Christmas" rhetoric. Stuff like, "Department stores cannot dictate how their employees greet customers during the holidays. If they want to say Merry Christmas, that's their free speech." Or "People can't stop people 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 I'm only prepared to grant "free speech" that's free, as in not paid for - especially not with public money. 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...

Delightful, as always. Just one thing though - It doesn't start on the 8th, it starts the evening of the 11th. Shabbes + 1st night of chanukah = death by latke overdose.

Also, I agree with Z's comment on facebook - the language does seem to have mellowed.

Adina said...

It's actually on December 11 at sundown this year.
I actually don't mind when people wish me a merry xmas, but I do wish happy chanukah in return.

That said, the worst thing about all of this cultural sensitivity is that it can make people feel self-conscious or guilty. I hate that. I don't mind that people want to share a holiday that makes them happy as long as I get my requisite chinese meal and a movie on Christmas eve.

Hal said...

Re spelling, I am reminded of how, when T.E. Lawrence wrote Revolt In the Desert, his editors has similar objections about consistency.

"Sherif Abd el Mayin of Slip 68 becomes el Main, el Mayein, el Muein, el Mayin, and el Muyein."

Lawrence wrote back, "Good egg. I call this really ingenious."

Fellow Human said...

Hey, take a breath. 'Tis the season to be JOLLY. :)

Anonymous said...


Sometimes Davey Wins said...

Thanks for the comments and copy-edits!

Anonymous said...

A club I'm a member of is having a holiday party. I quipped that I would organize the potluck even though I'm Jewish. The woman sitting next to me gushed: "Oh, I'm an atheist. I know exactly how you feel" I said, "I don't think it's quite the same thing." She said "Yes, it is." I said "No, it isn't." I ran out of ways to continue the conversation. If I were you I would have been more articulate and would have been able to explain what I think I meant.

Anonymous said...

Greetings from No. Andover MA where the town elders changed the rules about public displays to prevent a mennorah from being on the town common for eight days. Then when the fire department wanted to hang their annual Merry Christmas sign for the month of December, they couldn't cuz of the new rule. Now, suddenly, the new rule is big news on the local networks. Can you spell "Antisemitism"?

Uncle Coyote said...

I've seen a lot of Christians get offended when wished a Happy Holidays, too, but because they want everybody to be celebrating Christmas. I can't understand the rancor from someone simply wishing another well, for whatever reason.

Aaron J Shay said...

As a Jew, I have to say that all of this information is correct, but you sound like a grouch. You know, some of us could care less if people wish us a merry Christmas. It isn't that big of a deal. It's the price you pay for living in a predominately Christian nation. Do people make assumptions? Sure. Are they dumb? Absolutely. But do I care, personally? No. Because I've got more important things to raise my blood pressure about.

Dane said...

I re-posted this on Facebook, and here are some of the comments I got (also, comments from a friend who re-posted the link as well)

"God, YES. I want to kiss that person full on the mouth."

""Please don’t tell me to have a Merry Christmas. This is comparable to telling a Canadian happy 4th of July." Sadly, the people most likely to need this advice are exactly the people who tell Canadians happy 4th of July. And who don't understand the blank stares."

"This person, though correct, is a big old grouch. Does it really matter that much? I see blood pressure problems in their future."

Unknown said...

Thank you for the insight! Opened my eyes (wider than they were)... and spawned a follow-up post on my photo blog:

Unknown said...

Davey--thanks for writing this.

Jason said...

Good read! Just thought you might be interested to know that the Christmas tree (or bush) was not adopted from any pagan Celtic holiday. That's a common misconception based on the Yule tradition that it actually derives from being misidentified by some people (especially in Neopagan communities) as Celtic. It's actually Germanic.

Anonymous said...

Way to get upset over trifles my persnickety friend. It reminds me of the time friends and I were caroling in New York City and got told to fuck off by an angry Jewish person who backtracked just to melodramatically flip us off. It was the Jewish people in our small group who laughed the hardest at said irate person, when we were just trying to do a good thing. Yes, about half of our group was Jewish, and we happily sang Christmas carols for people on the street and the FDNY. Shocking, I know. They didn't even feel culturally assaulted or degraded if you can imagine.
If I were in a predominantly Jewish country like Israel, and was wished a Happy Hannukah, or L'shana Tova, or Happy Holidays, I would not mind at all. When a friend wished me 'Mazel Tov' for my wedding, I did not express my offense at her apparent lack of cultural sensitivity. Please get over yourself. I feel like I have to censor what I say in my store now because people get mad at Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, and Have A Nice Day thanks to militantly uptight people like yourself. Really, whether you like it or not, you live in a predominantly Christian country, and no I am not Christian, but I don't go around expecting everyone to ammend their culture just for me. You just seem like an ethnocentric pettifogger with a lot of audacity. People like you fan the flames of cultural disharmony with your sense of entitlement.

Feliznavidadputo said...

Not that I think you'll let this comment get through because you seem more the type that really enjoys holding people captive with your sanctimonious bullshit than to actually partake in meaningful discussion. Essentially you're a miserable asshole. According to your stupid fucking logic I should be upset if my co-workers wish me a Happy Dalwali because I am not Hindu and don't celebrate that Holiday. Unlike you I don't take myself so seriously that I can't return the sentiment and move on with my life. I am not even Christian, yet somehow I can tolerate the celebration of all Holidays with grace and kindness. Clearly it's working for you to be a selfish righteous intolerant fuck, so keep up the good work you jackass.

Dane said...

Good grief. It seems like this post is stirring up a lot of feelings in some of your readers! Anybody care to talk about how this post made them feel? ...anyone? anyone?

I'll go first. This post made me feel cheerful, delighted, a touch exasperated and full of holiday warmth.

Reading the comments of Anon 10:34 and Felizenavidadputo made me want to chuckle condescendingly in the directions of their authors. I reserve my right to be cranky around Xmas and such; apparently, so do they!

Anonymous said...

i remember this post (slightly updated now) from last year. some of it made me laugh in recognition and agreement again, enjoying the andy rooney-ness of it......and some of it appears to have a tinge of hostility to it.

i like what someone else posted above:

"If I were in a predominantly Jewish country like Israel, and was wished a Happy Hannukah, or L'shana Tova, or Happy Holidays, I would not mind at all."

i agree i think you need to lighten up in some places.

as far as public spaces go, it's winter and a lot of people are gathering for a lot of different reasons at the same time. how about some snowmen and lights? rock your own holiday (or not) but don't piss on your neighbor's. okay, so channukah is not one of the high holies, so what, it's still happening in the same vicinity , as are other celebrations.

if you want a nativity scene or a menorah, put it on the lawn of your place of worship or on your own lawn, that is your business and out of your own pocket, i agree.

just like many jews are culturally immersed yet not religious, there are still common traditions that run through all of the jewish holidays.

"christians" are much more ethnically diverse in this country. there are some common threads but some differences also.

the protestant, catholic, baptist, etc. churches operate with differences, and that these groups do not all follow the same exact traditions. religious ones celebrate the birth of jesus. the non-practicing ones sometimes just celebrate the gathering of loved ones. "merry christmas" has taken on a variety of meanings to a variety of people, who are taking the opportunity during a massive holiday frenzy swirling around them to gather and give with those they love.

don't like it... escape for "the holidays.

the local synogogue here is having a massive chinese buffet and showing the film "the producers" on christmas. gathering together. i think that is wonderful.

in this country, this is what we do. i feel like your annoyance is just another brick in the wall of this problem.

Anonymous said...

The celebrations this time of year predate Christianity and Judaism. Whatever people choose to call it, the point is feel warm and steel up your courage for the cold months to come.
Why are you using your formidable skills to stir up anger? That is the real question. And may you go into the new year with a wee bit more introspection.