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.”
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>.