Responding To Merry Christmas
12/09/11
Jewish Week Online Columnist
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Q: It’s that time of year, when everyone everywhere is saying “Merry Christmas” to me, even people who know that I am Jewish. Should I simply smile and repeat the greeting or politely correct the greeter and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t observe Christmas.”

A:  Now I know why Lenny Bruce said that Christians celebrate while Jews observe. We never get to be happy, even at this most celebratory time of year. We’re always observing. And in December, we’re always agonizing over how to find our little niche in this annual Yuletide cultural bombardment.

The key is to come up with strategies that affirm Jewish distinctiveness and pride while not adding to the already tense, politicized atmosphere of the Christmas – er, holiday – season in American public life (and if you don’t believe it’s been politicized, take a look at this week’s opening salvos by Jon Stewart  and Bill O’Reilly). How can we reply in a manner that does not invite retaliation and resentment?

There is nothing wrong with wishing a non Jewish neighbor “Merry Christmas,” just as it would not be a betrayal for her to wish you “Shabbat Shalom” when leaving work on Friday afternoon. In the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Moses Isserles notes the need for being good neighbors in a society where Jews and non-Jews mingle and do business together, even regarding problematic greetings. It’s all done for the sake of peace. The idea is to reduce tensions, not increase them. 

It’s even halachically OK to mention a holiday whose name includes the name of a foreign deity. At least it is in this case, since the word “Christ” is not really a name at all, but the Greek translation of the Hebrew term for “Anointed One.” If the holiday were called “Jesus-fest” or “Zeus-mas, or “Tim Tebow Day” there might be cause for concern. So when I speak with my Christian clergy colleagues, I have no problem acknowledging their holiday in my seasonal salutations. 

Ironically, Jews tend not to label our festivals when extending greetings. We traditionally just say “Happy Holiday” on Passover or Sukkot (“Hag Sameach” in Hebrew or “Gut Yomtov” in Yiddish). The only exception to that rule happens to be Hanukkah. We say “Hag HANUKKAH Sameach” in order to distinguish this minor non-biblical festival from the more significant biblically mandated holidays.

A greeting should be seen as a verbal embrace, the extension of blessing, rather than as an assertion of xenophobic power.  In a perfect world, “Happy Holidays” would not be seen as a cheapening of the meaning of Christmas, but as an enhancement of its deepest spiritual message. 

So let’s try to get beyond the clichéd salutations that have backed everyone into a corner. If you feel that someone is deliberately trying to impose upon you the hegemony of Christmas, wishing you a “Merry Christmas” while knowing that you are Jewish, let’s look for a reply that is both respectful of diversity yet deeply spiritual, something that could be uttered simultaneously to Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly without blinking an eye. Here are my nominations:

“Wishing you a Blessed Season!” (Sounds too much like Red Skelton, or a Debbie Friedman song, not that there’s anything wrong with Debbie Friedman songs.)

“May the Light Increase” (Sounds a bit too Star Warsy)

“Peace” (A little too ‘60s, especially if you are wearing a Nehru jacket) 

“Shalom”

Think about it. Shalom is perfect. These days, everyone knows what it means - like schlemiel and chutzpah. The reply is spiritual, identifiably Jewish yet increasingly universal. Listen to a parade of evangelical politicians lining up to speak at a conclave supporting Israel. You’ll hear more “Shalom”s uttered there than in the hallways of the Knesset, where the politicians are more likely to be spitting at one another. 

So the next time someone who knows you are Jewish says “Merry Christmas” just to get a rise out of you, take the high road and elevate the conversation by replying “Shalom.” But if it’s simply someone on the street, movie theater or supermarket, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” would be equally fine.

Anything but, “Oy vey. My children never call!”

editor@jewishweek.org

 

 

Last Update:

12/26/2013 - 20:53

Comments

I love this guy.

Regardless of the religion, the celebration, or the observance...bottom line is... if someone offers you a greeting (for whatever reason).... a simple response of 'And the same to you' should suffice...end of story and debate.

I am a Christian, and over the years, I have worked, lived with and studied with many people of the Jewish faith. It throws me for a loop year after year when I wish those individuals who I know are Jewish a Happy Passover, or Happy Hanukkah, and the response is a simple thank you. Never a "and a Merry Christmas to you" or "Happy Easter to you". I've asked why that is, and have been told that since Christmas/Easter are not Jewish celebrations, there is no reason to recognize them. I find this odd. I am not Jewish, but recognize that my colleagues/friends do hold these celebrations as important, and so feel it is a supportive/friendly gesture. Why can it not be reciprocated?

I hope you realize that the Jew(s)in your office are not representative of the whole faith of Jews. here is an example. I was driving home and a guy with a christian bumper sticker cut me off. My question to you is why do all Christians drivers act inappropriately when driving. it's that silly. I have said Merry Christmas 100 more times than I have said happy hannukah.

I also find it interesting that when your colleagues express thanks for recognizing thier beliefs, you can not take the extra step and realize they may not feel comfortable reciprocating. Did you wish them a Happy Hanukkah just so they would say in return Merry Christmas?

Imagine if you lived in a foreign country where Christianity was the minority and every action you took and response you gave was seen as the personality and disposition of every Christian.

Guess what, there are some Jews that are cranky in the morning before they get thier coffee (just like a person of any faith) and imagine them having a short fuse and the other person saying. gosh those jews sure are cranky in the morning.

No, Shalom IS a weird response. No, in fact it's ridiculous considering the word peace has nothing to do with Christmas and it looks like you're being rude by trying to replace a simple acknowledgement of the season with a word from another religion.

It reminds me of the time when I told a guy I spoke German and he responded with: "mmmm, Haagen Daas".

Come on man. The world is too big for this kind of petty stuff. I empathize that Christmas wouldn't be all that great if you're Jewish, but you have Purim so it's not as though you have no fun. If a Jewish guy wished me "happy hannukah" (I'm an agnostic) and I said: "I don't observe hannukah" you would probably denounce this as anti-semitism!

I'm an agnostic and not a Christian, yet I would never dream of telling someone that I don't believe in Christ as a response to their season greeting.

Wishing them a happy "*whatever-they're-celebrating*" does not mean you're turning Muslim/Christian/whatever, it simply means you wish them the best for their holidays.

If you are secure in your own identity and religious beliefs, you will be able to do this.

If you really really feel the need to object, you could say: "well, I don't really celebrate Christmas, but I hope you have a good one yourself!"

This is a Great article and i wish I was as eloquent as everybody that has reply to it. Yes, the best response is "Thank you and the she to You"or "Shalom". Very well said Mr. Walbert and Rabbi Hammerman. We christians also have to go through the jewish holidays and our children at school have to be endure/learn about them as well. I think we all are forgetting than no matter what, we adore the same God, and at the end that is what really matters. It is just different means to the same end. Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah.

The best response to "Merry Christmas" is

"Thank you, and the same to you."

As a Christian, I can assure all Jewish readers that "Merry Christmas" is an expression of good will, cheer, and benevolence, not bigotry or the prelude to forcible baptism. If I were in a Jewish area and received a Jewish greeting, I would say the same thing.

If a Christian wishes you a merry Christmas, it's usually because he doesn't know that you're Jewish. Most Gentiles don't spend a lot of time trying to figure out if a stranger is Jewish or not. I've been taken for Jewish in the past and don't regard it as an insult.

I find this whole issue pretty moot. If it is a friend or coworker.. I will generally respond Happy Chanukah (if during Chanukah) or Happy Holidays. If it is a stranger on the street.. there is no reason you can not respond Merry Christmas. There is much in Jewish Law and Tradition to be polite to our neighbors and to our host nations. Wishing someone a Happy or Merry whatever.. is not similar to celebrating it. As for the question of your cubicle at work. Decorate it with Chanukah. There are many decoration that have now become popular. There is no need to alienate our Christian neighbors or co-workers or to give up our distinct Jewishness. We as Jews should not feel offended when we are wished a Merry Christmas nor should we be conserned how our Christian friends, coworkers and neighbors will feel if we wish them a happy chanukah or happy holidays. especially since Holiday is rooted in Holy Day.

I'm Jewish and we should all respect and understand that if we live in Christian majority country, we shouldn't get insulted if somebody wishes us "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Easter" during Christian holidays.

Us Jews only represents 1.7% of the U.S. population, while there are 80% Christians, and 96% celebrate Christmas in America.

I don't think any Non-Jews would complain us wishing them "Happy Hanukkah" if they visited a Jewish nation.

Shalom

I'm a christian and I would feel honored if I was given the response of "Shalom" to my "Merry Christmas."

Also, I did not realize that "Happy Holidays" had a spiritual message in the Jewish faith. I will take it with more respect when someone greets me that way. In my small circle I have found some folks take offense to "Happy Holidays" because they think that Christmas is being "secularized" or being made "anti-Christ." I see now that it can be a very respectful greeting.

Thank you

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