Like most Jews, I don’t take offense when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas. I take it in the spirit in which the salutation is intended: a generic greeting that doesn’t hold deep religious meaning. I put it up there with “Have a nice day.”
It’s a dark time of year and for me the lights, decorations, illuminated trees, and greetings of Christmas cheer are an attempt to lighten things up, that’s all. On a deeper level, the wish of a Merry Christmas means: Let’s get through the dark winter months until the sun comes back again.
In recent years, people tend to get nervous about offending the religious sensitivity of others. Especially at Christmas. Debates circulate about putting Christmas trees or manger scenes on public land. Some attempt to mitigate the issue by saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”
But I have never met a Jewish person who felt seriously insulted by a holiday greeting; we understand the tsunami of Christmas and go with the flow.
Sure, there are religious decorations among the Santa-and-his-reindeer displays and inflated plastic snowmen. The crèche scenes remind Christians of the real purpose of the holiday. For the rest of us, the lights and decorations are pretty to look at.
My husband and I drive around and look at Christmas lights every year. It doesn’t move us to convert to Christianity or question our Jewish faith. It’s pretty clear to us that Christmas decorations are put out on lawns, strung along gutters, and sometimes placed on rooftops, to decorate the house, not to proselytize or move someone to religious rapture.
The most important Jewish holidays do not have any fictional characters to go along with them like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. They are deeply moving and meaningful to Jews, but there isn’t any bling.
On Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the year, we fast, not feast. We sit in the synagogue the entire day and break the fast after sundown. It is spiritually rigorous and a time for self-reflection.
Since we don’t have any fun stuff to augment our holy day, we vicariously enjoy Christmas cheer, but it does not undermine our beliefs. After all, Judaism is the foundation of Christianity and both faiths share many values.
In recent years retailers have been catching on and now sell us deprived Jews some goodies for Hanukkah. Although the holiday is not the most important one on the Jewish calendar, some fun traditions have grown up around it and the accouterments are a retailer’s dream.
I have Hanukkah-themed guest towels in my bathroom that are embroidered with dreidels and menorahs. I even succumbed to the charm of a string of Hanukkah lights to hang in the window.
I live far-flung from the areas of California where a Jewish family seems to live on every block, but even the grocery stores out here have small displays with Hanukkah merchandise in an attempt to be respectful or to capitalize on our holiday. It’s quite funny actually: It seems as if no one in the store knows exactly when Hanukkah is, so they put things out during Christmas and hope for the best.
Irving Berlin (a Jew) wrote a beloved Christmas song, “White Christmas.” Mel Tormé (a Jew) wrote the charming lyrics “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire/ Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” from “The Christmas Song.”
And then there are the Christmas albums featuring Barry Manilow and Barbra Streisand, just to mention a couple more great Jewish names. When it comes to popular music, Jews have contributed plenty to the joy of the Christmas season.
I say to Christians and others who celebrate Christmas, don’t worry about your Jewish friends and acquaintances, we are just fine. The overwhelming majority of us will respond with a cheery “Merry Christmas” back at you.
To quote the end of Mr. Tormé’s “The Christmas Song:” “And so I’m offering a simple phrase/ To kids from one to 92/ Although it’s been said many times/ Many ways, Merry Christmas to you.”
Oh, and “Happy Hanukkah,” too.
Kathleen Vallee Stein is a freelance writer.