Responding To Merry Christmas

The key is to come up with strategies that affirm Jewish pride while not adding to the politicized atmosphere of Christmas.

Jewish Week Online Columnist
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What to say? Fotolia
What to say? Fotolia

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) 


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!”



Last Update:

12/26/2015 - 12:54
Bill O’Reilly, December Dilemma, Jews at Christmas, Jon Stewart, Lenny Bruce, Merry Christmas

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I never wish my colleagues a 'Merry Christmas' because they inevitably respond 'Merry Christmas' back. It's reflexive. And then they generally feel awkward. I do tell them that I hope they have a lovely Christmas, however.

Personally, I think if the cultural majority insists on wishing people they don't know a Merry Christmas, they also need to keep their knickers on straight when someone says 'It's actually not my holiday, but I hope yours is great."

Ammost 1 out of 5 people don't share the holiday. Some couldn't give a fig, but they don't all feel like pretending they celebrate Christmas for the entire 45 day American 'holiday' season. Especially when random strangers at the grocery store feel entitled to ask your preschooler what Santa is bringing him. Some Christian friends have told me the universal use of 'Merry Christmas' makes the season more festive for them. Which is nice. Others have explained they don't want to say 'Happyl Holidays' because they worry Jesus will think they are ashamed of him and not let them into heaven. (Good reason, I guess) Still others have interpreted the first amendment to mean they get to say whatever they want and everyone else gets to like it.

I could care less how often or for how many days I am greeted with Merry Christmas. As long as there is an opt out button, and presumptuous people take their fair share of responsibility for accepting 'No, thank you' in the same spirit it was offered.

We just say "have a happy holiday".
We don't say what they say because it is not allowed, and not that we don't wish them well, because we do wish them well.

What is harm in wishing anyone one
Merry Chritmas.It dosen't matter whether we celebrate it or not.We should take every festival as a time of celebration thats what I think.

I am a Christian but I've have many Jewish friends and co-workers that I love and respect. However, there's one thing that's always puzzled me. Each year, I wish EACH of them a Happy Hanukkah, but no one of the Jewish faith has ever wished me a Merry Christmas. I'm not sure I understand why. Is it forbidden? Does it just not occur to them? I've never understood this. At first I thought it was odd, but I'm beginning to think it might be rude, but maybe I'm reading this wrong? Do they mean to be disrespecting my faith? I genuinely wish them a happy Hanukkah, why do they not wish me a Merry Christmas?

I'll answer assuming that it is indeed a question and it's aimed at understanding the root cause of the phenomenon described. The behavior of your Jewish friends does not come from rudeness or ill will. Firstly, it stems from a simple fact that Judaism predates Christianity and does not include the New Testament while Christianity does include the Old Testament. Therefore, I guess congratulating a Jew on a Jewish holiday does not really take you beyond the realm of the Christian faith, at least not the same way as it would have been for a Jew in a symmetrical situation. Secondly, you may want to recall that for many centuries, again and again, Jews were forced to convert to Christianity and persecuted for refusing to do so. The efforts to gently convert Jews to Christianity continue even now. Being a minority, it's not easy for them to preserve their faith. So your Jewish friends may love and respect you but feel uncomfortable when put in a position that - they feel - ultimately pushes them towards a conversion. I believe you do not mean it but put yourself in their shoes for a second and make an effort to understand. As a secular Jew, I do say Merry Christmas to my Christian friends and colleagues but I also understand why some others would rather not.

I don't give the same reply because in the greeting is the name/title of a deity (Christ) and a religious ritual (mass) which observant Jews try to avoid uttering much less recognizing. Also this time of year includes other festive observances that have nothing to do with Christianity and even predate the religion I don't favor one over the other, but do know many great individuals in both ideologies. My response is usually Thank-you - while it is not my holiday if it's yours I wish you a joyous and safe holiday.

Thank you for this article. However, I'm someone who's lived all over the United States, including both Coasts & the Gulf of Mexico, and my experience has been that MOST people outside of the major metropolitan city centers have no idea what Shalom is. Yet, I use it anyways, or simply reply back with "Happy Channukah." I concur, however that Shalom is the best option. Again, thank you for this article.

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?

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