Jewish World Review Dec. 3, 2010 / 26 Kislev, 5771
Being Jewish at Christmastime
By Greg Crosby
Question: "I am a Jewish woman living in a predominantly Christian part of Florida. I am tired of people wishing me a Merry Christmas. My usual response to people I don't know well is, "Yeah, you too." If it's someone I see often -- like my hair stylist -- I usually tell them around November that our family is Jewish and we are looking forward to celebrating Hanukkah. How should Jews respond to "Merry Christmas" greetings?"
Answer: Dear Judy, Thank you for your question. It is a question, I think, that almost every North American Jew has asked of themselves at some point: How do I respond when someone wishes me a "Merry Christmas"?
Like you, I live in a part of the world where Jews are a small minority. To make matters worse, I have two young children, so I also have to deal with well-meaning strangers who ask my kids, "What is Santa bringing you for Christmas?" You can imagine the strange looks when I have to explain, politely, that our children do not celebrate Christmas and Santa does not visit our house.
My advice is to be polite, but persistent, in telling people that you do not celebrate Christmas. When Jews and other non-Christians acquiesce to "Merry Christmas" greetings with responses like, "You, too," or just nervous smiles, we only perpetuate the idea that Christmas is for everyone.
I am always amazed when people who know full well that I am Jewish ask me and my children questions like, "How does your family celebrate Christmas?", "Do you have a tree?" and "Don't you give presents on Christmas day?" It is not that people intend to dismiss the integrity of Judaism as a distinct religion; they just have internalized the assumption that, in America, everyone celebrates Christmas.
What do you say when well-wishers wish you a "merry Christmas"? My answer is, "Thank you, but I don't celebrate Christmas. Let me wish you the best on your holiday." It's worth taking the time to get the point across.
What about Hanukkah? I avoid saying, "We celebrate Hanukkah," as a response to Christmas greetings. Even more than I want to tell people that Christmas is not for everyone, I want to insist that Hanukkah is not the "Jewish Christmas."
Hanukkah is a minor holiday. It is a time for Jewish families to spend a little extra time together on the darkest evenings of the year, to watch candles flicker, and to consider the presence of miracles in our lives. Hanukkah is best when it is kept small. It may sound strange to hear a rabbi say it, but I don't really want strangers to wish me a "happy Hanukkah," either -- especially if they think that it's just the way to wish a Jew a merry Christmas! I hope that this is helpful.
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser
Writer, actor and political /social commentator Ben Stein, had a different take on the question back in December of 2005 on the CBS Sunday Morning show. His commentary has been repeated and sent worldwide on the internet ever since. He said the following:
"Herewith at this happy time of year, a few confessions from my beating heart:
I have no freaking clue who Nick and Jessica are. I see them on the cover of People and Us constantly when I am buying my dog biscuits and kitty litter. I often ask the checkers at the grocery stores. They never know who Nick and Jessica are either. Who are they? Will it change my life if I know who they are and why they have broken up? Why are they so important? I don't know who Lindsay Lohan is, either, and I do not care at all about Tom Cruise's wife.
Am I going to be called before a Senate committee and asked if I am a subversive? Maybe, but I just have no clue who Nick and Jessica are. Is this what it means to be no longer young. It's not so bad.
Next confession: I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish.
And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees Christmas trees. I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are: Christmas trees. It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, "Merry Christmas" to me. I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a crèche, it's just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.
I don't like getting pushed around for being a Jew and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in G0d are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat. Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship Nick and Jessica and we aren't allowed to worship G0d as we understand Him?
I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where Nick and Jessica came from and where the America we knew went to."
Throughout the 20th Century American Jewish writers, artists, and song writers have contributed to a lot of what we've come to think of as the American Christmas culture, along with American Jewish movie moguls, advertising men, retailers and toy manufacturers. It may sound laughable, but many claim that the best Christmas movies and Christmas songs of the last century were written by Jewish guys.
I think it is altogether possible to be Jewish and to enjoy the American Christmas season with our fellow Americans. I'm not for "Jews for Jesus" or embracing the Christian religion in any way, shape, or form. We need to be true to our own religion. But one doesn't have to be a Christian to grasp the spirit of Christmas, to participate in the virtues of charity, faith, goodwill and love. Those values are as much Jewish as they are Christian. All of us Americans, Jews and gentiles, can and should come together as a nation at this happy, warm time of year. How could it hurt?
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in the media and Washington consider "must-reading". Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
© 2008, Greg Crosby