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The Grinch is back

In a recent guest post on TCJewfolk, Nina Badzin advocates that Jews stop rejecting “Merry Christmas” greetings by saying “Not everybody celebrates Christmas,” “I’m Jewish,” or “I celebrate Hanukkah.” She writes: “Our disdain is embarrassing. It’s wrong. AND IT HAS TO STOP.” While some of her points are certainly valid, the piece really rubbed me the wrong way. If I may play “Grinch’s Advocate” for a minute, I take issue with the idea that Jews always-and-no-matter-what have to put on a smiling face (or dreaded Santa hat) during Christmas.

What’s so wrong with “Happy Holidays?”

If those who wish everyone a “Merry Christmas” are so well-intentioned, wouldn’t they be open to the idea of saying “Happy Holidays” instead? Learning that some of their clientele is Jewish might help expand their understanding, raise their consciousness, or open their mind to the fact that not everyone celebrates Christmas. I’m not just talking about Jewish people, though. What about the Neo-Pagans? What about the atheists? The Hindus and Buddhists? Muslims? As Galit Breen so eloquently said, "the issue isn’t about taking Christmas out of society. It’s about letting everyone else in." What’s wrong with taking this opportunity to educate people about religious diversity instead of rewarding insensitive behavior, well-intentioned as it may be? Of course, we should try to be courteous. This is perhaps where Badzin and I agree. There is no need to be confrontational or aggressive about explaining why a “Happy Holidays” is better than a “Merry Christmas" and there are plenty of nice ways to let someone know. For example, “Thanks, but I don’t actually celebrate Christmas. Have a great holiday, though!”

But if I may be so bold, what would be so wrong with making "Happy Holidays" the standard greeting for public and commercial interactions? It's Diversity 101, for crying out loud. Why are being so delicate about this issue? Sometimes I feel like I'm still 6 years old, forbidden by my mother to tell the other kids the truth about Santa. But now we're grown ups, and I'm not sure why Jews must go to such lengths to protect and coddle Christmas spirit. Do strangers take care not to ruin my good mood on Rosh Hashanah? I think not.

This is not an issue of freedom, it’s an issue of respect and consideration

Badzin argues that informing salespeople that we don’t celebrate Christmas makes us sound “confused about freedom.” She writes: “Speaking of religious freedom, this little nugget of American goodness extends to Christians too. If we can put an eyesore of a Sukkah on our driveways, then certainly our neighbors have earned the right to a blinking Nativity scene or some elves.” First of all, Jewish Sukkah-building is not even on the same planet as Christmas decorations. Find me a neighborhood with ramshackle Sukkahs lining the streets and I’ll show you 2,000 neighbhorhoods dazzled with lights and tacky inflatables. And then I’ll show you the downtown of every single town and city in America (and the inside of most private businesses and public offices) decked out in Christmas baubles.

But that’s beside the point. This isn’t about freedom of religion; it’s about respect and consideration. It's not about what people choose to do with their private property. It’s about the majority recognizing that there are minorities and that everyone does not celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s about getting people who view Christmas as a “secular” holiday to realize that plenty of non-Christians don’t see it that way. It’s about respecting our fellow citizens by not making assumptions about religion. It’s about taking the time and consideration to phrase a greeting to a perfect stranger in a way that is inclusive and respectful of everyone’s beliefs. If Jews and other non-Christians can deal with the bombardment of Christmas stuff on TV, in ads, on the radio, in stores, in coffeeshops, at work, at school, on the very streets themselves, the least people can do is say “Happy Holidays.”

The dreaded “G” word

I grew up in a rural area and was one of only a few Jews in my predominantly white Protestant school district. I learned right quick that any Christmas protest – refusing to make ornaments for my presumed “Hanukkah bush,” staying silent for “Silent Night” – earned me the label of “Grinch.” Why did I have to ruin it for everyone? Why couldn’t I just be pleasant and enjoy the merriment with my classmates? I think a lot of Jews conduct themselves throughout December with this in mind.

Being Jewish and labeled a “Grinch” is a lot like being a woman and labeled a “bitch.” Any hint of assertiveness or request to be heard is interpreted as being “ungrateful,” “jealous,” “narcissistic,” or “hostile” – all words used by Badzin, by the way. How much of our “Christmas spirit” is a mask painted on to avoid the groans and rolling eyes of people who have never understood what it feels like to be a “lonely Jew on Christmas?” How much is to avoid being called – the worst of all Jewish stereotypes – a Grinch?

It's okay to have limits

I realize that this post makes me seem like a huge Grinch. (Or bitch – both seem to fit.) The truth is that I do, actually, enjoy some things about Christmas. I love the red and white holiday cups at Starbucks, gingerbread lattes, and even the twinkle lights that line the streets. I love seeing oversize trees pinned to the tops of cars driving by. I get excited when invited to help someone decorate their tree. And sometimes, I really do enjoy being wished a “Merry Chistmas” by a well-intentioned person just bursting with seasonal cheer. But I have my limits, and they vary from year to year, day to day.

I believe that celebrating freedom of religion and recognizing a separation between church and state means that the religious majority should not force their holidays down the throats of minorities and expect them to be happy about it. It means that we should not make assumptions about others’ religion or observance. We should not assume that just because Christmas “feels secular” to you that it does to everyone. These are the things issues that flash into my mind when somone wishes me a "Merry Christmas," and these giant assumptions behind those two little words bother me on a number of levels. 

It's not the end of the world

What Badzin seems to have forgotten is that sometimes being a Jew during Christmas time in America is hard, and we each deal with it in our own ways. Sometimes the way we react to  a “Merry Christmas” has more to do with our mood at that moment than our well-reasoned feelings on the subject. (After all, we're only human.)

If you don’t feel comfortable being wished “Merry Christmas” ten times a day, that doesn’t make you a Grinch. In the grand scheme of things, letting a store clerk or two know that you don’t celebrate Christmas is really not that big a deal. You might open someone’s eyes and have a great conversation about diversity and inclusion or you might just be another cranky customer, but no matter what, you won’t be the Grinch who stole “Merry Christmas.”

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8 Comments

Get over it!! And Merry Christmas!

Jen, I wonder whether you're serious about being mystified about what's hard for Jews at Christmas-time? ("She also writes, "What Badzin seems to have forgotten is that sometimes begin a Jew during Christmas time in America is hard". Really? What's so hard?")

Just in case you are serious, I'd like to answer you seriously.

Many Jews find Christmas hard because -- for the month of December -- we cannot escape feeling like a minority.

Now, of course, American Jews _are_ in a numberical minority. But, if we choose not to focus on this statistical fact, our daily lives do allow us to ignore it. We are not persecuted, and not even shunned. Unlike some other racial or ethnic minorities, we can feel like we're not visibly identifiable (or, at least, if we are identified, very few non-Jews ever say so). In our daily lives, we can feel like we're not different. We feel like our Jewishness doesn't limit us. After all, we are sucessful in a broad variety of endeavor. In every way, despite our minority status, we're equal.

Not different. Not "the other." Most of the time we can reassure ourselves of that. And we do need reassurance. Because we know well what can happen to those who are different, to those ho are "the other."

But in December, we _are_ different.

And we can't avoid it.

This cribs from my recent post on this subject at TCJewfolk. If you want to read more, go to http://tcjewfolk.com/love-thy-... (see "Mike")

Thanks for your lovely response, Nina. I admit that I took a pretty oppositional stance in my piece and purposefully (and playfully) wrote it in way that I knew would ruffle some feathers. I appreciate your feedback for sure, and am loving all the discussion happening here and on TCJewfolk. Thanks again for letting me play "Grinch's advocate."

Hi there! First, thank you for taking this issue on and presenting your point of view. As a matter of fact, I think your view is shared by most Jews, which is why I was elated when TCJewfolk let me present mine--the more unusual one, or least the one I rarely see voiced. Without repeating my entire guest post (where, by the way, I never used the word grinch) I think what it all comes down to is this: Jews ARE different in America, at least our religion is. And I'm 100% comfortable with that fact whether I'm reminded of it during December because I do NOT celebrate Christmas, or whether I'm reminded of it because of the many things I do to PURPOSELY and proudly remind myself of our difference (keep a kosher kitchen, put up a sukkah, etc. The list goes on and on). I guess in my mind, diversity is about celebrating these differences rather than striving to make us all seem the same. (I'm not saying you're advocating for this . . . I'm responding to the issue as a whole). I'll end it here to spare both of our readers and make room for others to add their two cents as well. Best, Nina

Christmas is an interesting holiday in that it has evolved into a celebration that is secular and religious. And, of course, commercial. Having married into a Jewish family, I happily left the commercial and secular and religious aspects behind. Still, I take the greetings in the spirit in which they are offered. Coming from a friend, "Merry Christmas," means just that, and I am delighted to hear it. Coming from Wal-Mart, "Merry Christmas" means "Spend money." It's a greeting I happily ignore.

I feel a little weird responding to such an articulate group of women...I have read Badzin's guest blog and the "grinch is back" and I am a Jewish makeup artist at a big department store in Chicago in the thick of what you both are talking about...obviously not a writer, so please bare with me...

I feel extremely grateful of my Jewish upbringing, identity, and education. And I believe Gd made Christmas. Not only that, He made good stuff, bad stuff, He made the stuff I believe in, He made some stuff I dont believe in. He made things that make me cry in rage and also total complete happiness. There are times I feel very close to Him, there are times I am furious with Him, there are times when I feel I barely know Him.

But I feel He wants me grow. He wants me to see His light. He wants me to see His light on Shabbos candles, menorahs, and even Christmas trees. If it is harder to be Jewish in December -- I say -- I take that challenge, what else you got?

I'm surprised by 'Jen the Jews' rage at this very, merry time of the year. Maybe she never got to read the - shocking - conclusion at the end of Berkenwald's post. (Note to Jen - start at "Its Not the End of the World" and read till 'The End'.)Please remember that the Grinch was created by Dr Seus (Theodor Seuss Geisel). A life long Lutheran, he created a hermit like character who lacked emotional empathy. After all, WHO DOESN'T LIKE CHRISTMAS! For a beloved children's author, he didn't exactly invite inclusiveness with this approach.Maybe one too many 'Merry Christmas' greetings pushes your buttons. Maybe it doesn't. But the debate will go on forever in our pluralistic society, and I hope it never stops. As long as we can talk openly about it, then no one will pick up rocks to throw at lights "of a different persuasion."Berkenwald's article reminds us of that, and does speak to both 'sides' in this morality play. So, to 'Jen the Jew", enjoy the Holiday Season with your friends. And Merry Christmas.

Let's be clear, if Berkenwald wants to walk around sulking and feeling down during the happiest time of the year in America, that's her right. After all, she has the same liberty as any other American including the right to be a downer. What gets me is why she's pushing her unhappiness on others? I mean it's one thing to do what she's advocating privately, but to push others to bring everyone down is mean-sprited.

For example she writes that Christians don't understand "what it feels like to be a 'lonely Jew on Christmas'". Which Jews are lonely? Maybe Berkenwald, but not most Jews. No, most of us are merrily enjoying Chinese food and movie. In fact, I'd venture to say more Jews celebrate Christmas than the second day of Rosh HaShannah. And nobody's locking the doors on our ghettos keeping us away from Christmas parties, many Jews do in fact celebrate with their Christian friends -- a fact ignored by Bukenwald.

She also writes, "What Badzin seems to have forgotten is that sometimes begin a Jew during Christmas time in America is hard". Really? What's so hard? Being merrily wished good cheer, people smiling, uplifting songs, parties, colorful lights? I guess by Berkenwald's standards birthday parties are a real nusiance too. And in terms of exclusivity, birthdays beat Christmas hands down. While Christmas is religiously celebrated by over 90% of Americans and is a national holiday to all I'm sorry to say, a person's birthday includes just .000000003% of the population. I think you may need more than Diversity 101 to stop this arrogant affront to inclusiveness.

Finally, why doesn't Berkenwald acknowledge what Badzin implys but never states directly -- we're not excluded from the freedom to practice our holidays, why should Christians be excluded from theirs? I mean seriously, if we really want to be accurate, then shouldn't the argument for Happy Holidays to include Jews be made for Labor Day and Halloween? That's when five of the eight most important Jewish holidays occur. They include Rosh HaShannah, Yom Kippur, Succot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. They are all biblically mandated as opposed to Channukah, which is not only rabbinic in orgin making it less important, but the book of Macabees is actually in the Christian bible!! And the reality is that most Jews who argue the loudest against Christmas, I know not all, do not celebrate most of these holidays, let alone our Sabbath, which happens each and every week.

So Happy Holidays Grinch, from the one Jew in Who-ville who still feels included in her neighbors biggest holy day of the year!

Grinch Holiday Card
Full image
The Grinch.
Courtesy of Colin Newman.
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How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "The Grinch is back." 14 December 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 26, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/the-grinch-is-back>.

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