Holiday Greetings – GOLD NOTES #18
by Matthew J. (Matt) Goldberg
A WEEKLY EXPLORATION OF… SOMETHING
Tuesday, December, 25 2012
Yesterday, I was starting to search for famous quotes about Christmas that were spoken by Jews. Perhaps. I googled it incorrectly, as the top match linked me to a column on about.com titled How Should a Jew Respond to a “Merry Christmas” Greeting? I took the detour, as I’ve asked myself that same question over the years and don’t really have a strategy for this situation.
In truth, as problems and dilemmas go, this isn’t exactly a big one, but it was worth a read. On this column, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser answered a question posed by Schvitzing in Sarasota…okay, it was by Judy, but did any of you check up on me?
Judy posed a question that I have thought about just a little over the years. In her words—and I don’t think she was schvitzing too much over it:
“I am a Jewish woman living in a predominantly Christian and Muslim 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?”
Hmmm…I don’t really have a scripted reply for these moments. I’d like to think that I handle these ever-so-slightly awkward moments in the right way. To me, I don’t really take offense to people not knowing I celebrate Chanukah, but I’m just a little surprised that many well-meaning people don’t really know that I do celebrate it. Rabbi Goldwasser also points out that Chanukah is hardly the Jewish equivalent of Christmas before explaining how he does not respond:
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!”
Which begs the question: If I don’t receive a Happy Chanukah (and I do like to hear that spelling, if possible), would I rather be greeted with a Happy Christmas or Merry Chanukah? I think the good rabbi was being just a bit finicky about “merry”; at Purim, we use that word quite liberally. Oh today, we merry, merry, be…I know Chanukah is different than Purim, but it’s not as if we’re averse to making merry on Chanukah, are we? Of course, I won’t begin to speak for anyone else—I’m still wrestling with my own representation—but dreidels, latkes and sufganiyot could induce a little merriment. For eight days or so.
Having said that, this may be my only point of departure from the rabbi. As to what he does say, there is some common sense in the following:
“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.”
I’m not really all that coachable after all these years, but that seems like a reasonable way to approach it. To me, it’s best to find a strategy that is not too obsequious but also not too pedantic. It seems quite silly to act giddy (or merry) when receiving a holiday greeting (especially the wrong one), but lecturing someone who made an honest mistake also seems to be a bad way to go about it. Rabbi Goldwasser seems to have found a pretty good middle ground here.
To be honest, I usually try very hard not to offend the person who wishes me a Merry Christmas. It can be awkward to say anything resembling “What were you thinking? You know I’m Jewish…my name’s MATTHEW JOSEPH GOLDBERG”, so I usually just accept the greeting in the way that it was intended. If no evidence to the contrary, I usually assume that the greeting was offered out of all good intentions.
Sometimes, I feel like Ian Miller, the waspy, vegetarian fiancée who married in to that big, fat, Greek (Portokalos) family. When he tells the 50 or so people at the family barbecue that he doesn’t eat meat, he is accosted by his future mother-in-law…or was it that crazy Aunt Tula? She looks at him as if he has five nostrils, and stage-shouts something like, “You no eat meat?! I make you some lamb.”
“What, you no decorate a Christmas tree? Where’s your Chanukah bush?” Yes, sometimes, I am incredulous at others being incredulous as to what we celebrate.
As a kid, I had just a little experience with this type of thing, which I’ll explain at the expense of airing just a little family laundry. Here goes: My Dad’s older sister, Aunt Betty (who I barely knew, but who had been institutionalized by the time I was born), had legally changed her name to Mary Master’sgood. Obviously, she had forsaken her Judaism and wasn’t averse to proselytizing—whether she realized it or not. On each of our Bar-Mitzvahs, my older brothers and I received congratulatory King James bibles. This didn’t play too well with Dad or Mom; I think I was just kind of confused and amused.
So, what have I learned after all these years? One should take great pride in one’s heritage and always act in a way that allows others to do the same. I also think it’s okay to gently correct someone who offers an erroneous “Merry Christmas”, if one can do it without making them feel bad about it. The greeter may even appreciate the correction.
And, if they don’t…there’s always Passover and those kosher-for-Passover bunnies…I mean chocolates.
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About the Author: An author, speaker and custom writer from Cherry Hill, NJ, Matt loves to entertain people through his writing and public speaking. Laughs, Smiles and just enough Wisdom reach his audience through the magic of his written and spoken words. More about Matthew