Thursday, December 18, 2008

It's Christmas Time. Again.

It's that time of year. The "holiday season", which for most people means Christmas. Even atheists and agnostics often celebrate Christmas. But of course, not me. I have Chanukkah, the ultimate holiday example of a battlefield promotion, which manages to be a) almost entirely mysterious to non-Jews and b) the most prominent Jewish holiday on the calendar at the same time.

I don't mind Christmas per se. Indeed, as far as I'm concerned it represents an excellent opportunity to get Chinese food, go see a movie, or hit the ski slopes while seeing virtually no crowds. But a surprisingly big stresser this year is how to respond when someone wishes me "Merry Christmas".

Of course, when unprompted my seasonal well-wish is "Happy Holidays". I've even thought of what I'll say if someone chides me for not saying "Merry Christmas": Ask them why they hate Protestants (What do you think "Christ's Mass" means?). But in many settings, someone will tell me -- with good intentions always -- "Merry Christmas"! And what do I do then?

Stephen Feldman, of course, would tell me that I should reply with a plea: "Please don't wish me a Merry Christmas!" But that seems quite churlish, and cuts against my adopted-Minnesotan instincts. Option two, which is what I tell myself I should do but never can bring myself to pull off, is to shoot back with a bright "Happy Channukah" -- matching sect for sect. But what can I say? I'm a very non-confrontational person. So generally, I just say "thanks -- you too."

But the whole ordeal annoys me. So I'm going to echo Feldman's plea. Happy holidays is the way to go. Jews are already making a concession in pretending that this is the holiday season, when of course the whole reason a podunk holiday like Chanukkah gets elevated to prime status is because this time of year is actually spectacularly unimportant to traditional Jewish ritual and practice (a point which was made by Justice Brennan in Allegheny County v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 646 (1989) (Brennan, J., concurring and dissenting), and has since been ignored by every other person on earth). The least y'all could do is not shove it our faces, or the faces of the various other religious denominations that don't frankly care that Christians like celebrating the birthday of Christ months after it actually happened.

UPDATE: Phoebe Maltz independently explores why (some) Jews dislike Christmas. I think the self-deprivation angle is pretty spot on -- there's an ascetic's pride in separating yourself from the Christian majority specifically by denying yourself what by all accounts is the best day of the year for all a few (I grew up in Bethesda) of your friends. Self-denial turns into bitterness, bitterness turns into hate. Of course, I'd wager that Jews would be less outwardly hostile to Christmas if it wasn't so omnipresent that we had to perpetually and publicly opt out of it. The pride here is coming after the fall -- we can only be proud of standing against Christmas because the alternative is being miserable about it.

UPDATE #2: Another contribution, courtesy of Howard Wasserman, examines what Christmas specials Jewish children are allowed to watch. I actually don't know if I saw any of these.


Wonders for Oyarsa said...

I'm a Christian, and so are the members of my family. My father has noticed in the business world that he almost always receives the bland "Happy Holiday" cards, with one exception - Jewish colleagues in Israel always send him Christmas cards. I'm not sure what to make of that, but I certainly find it interesting.

PG said...

It's different among different religions. Perhaps because Christians are a tiny minority in India, my parents and most other Hindus I know are quite happy to accept all of Christmas's secular and commercialized aspects. If you go to India in the last couple of weeks of December, you'll see plenty of Christmas trees, Santas, etc in Hindu-owned and -patronized businesses -- just not Nativity scenes or other references to the "reason for the season."

There are some Hindu hard-liners who are hostile to Christmas, but less so than they are to Valentine's Day. Hindus are down with getting together with family and handing around gifts, whereas this kissy kissy business is clearly an evil Western import.

I was dissecting last night why I don't remember ever having believed in Santa, and I realized that it's probably because my parents initially didn't celebrate Christmas when they came to the U.S. They would give each other and us gifts on Hindu holidays when that was appropriate, but they didn't start the Christmas shtick until we started going to pre-school and came home demanding gifts on Dec. 25. At that point the gifts on Hindu holidays diminished to always being new clothes to wear for the holiday, and our "real" gifts, i.e. stuff we wanted, would be given at Christmas. At that point the jig was up for convincing us that some big fat white man in a red suit was responsible for giving us the gifts, although for a few years my mother gamely signed the "from" tag as Santa.

I suppose this could be seen as an example of our assimilation's displacing some of our own traditions, but it's difficult to be sure of that, since a gift of clothing and fruit IS the actual Hindu tradition, whereas a Nintendo may as well be given on Dec. 25 as any other time of year.