Merry Christmas a few weeks early…
This year is unusual in a lot of ways. At the risk of losing my rep as a scrooge/grinch, I’ll mention one that’s kind of fun. This year, for the 2nd time in my life, Christmas happens during Chanukah! That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, you might have to make some hard choices this year: eggnog (gross) with store-bought sugar cookies at a Christmas party or poorly fried latkes and Kosher wine at a Chanukah party.
The first time in my life the two actually shared a date was my senior year in high school. Chanukah almost exclusively fell outside of ‘Winter Break’ from public school in rural Montana. This didn’t particularly matter (for me or the other nonexistent Jews): Chanukah is only thought of as a big deal because of its relative closeness to Christmas in terms of seasons and because it is another excuse to buy a bunch of stuff. It’s actually a pretty minor holiday as Jewish holidays go. Christmas, on the other hand, is a Big Deal in my hometown: the whole town gets together and decorates downtown, everyone has Christmas parties
For this reason and many others, I grew up liking a lot of things about Christmas despite not celebrating it personally. The smell of pine trees is nice, cookies are delicious, green and red look nice together, etc etc. I guess I’ve always liked what a good friend calls ‘the vestiges of Yule’. I personally like it when someone wishes me “Merry Christmas”: a vast majority of the time, people are giving me some cheerful greeting. However, at some point when I was in late middle or early high school, I remember there being a marked shift in how people were using the phrase “Merry Christmas” — people started to use it as a political statement, as a counter to the “War on Christmas/Christians” that was (apparently) begot by some people using the more non-religious greeting “Happy Holidays”. Never before had I seen something I’d previously thought of as relatively pleasant and harmless turned into such a foul phrase: people were now saying “Merry Christmas” as a euphemism for “screw all those people who were trying to make everyone feel included, my religion which is held by the vast majority of people here is under attack!”
At this point, I went from being a (slightly?) annoying kid who occasionally poked fun at our Christmas band concert and asked for some Chanukah music to be added to the repertoire, to the irate individual that I exist as today. It wasn’t the dozens of times kids in my school said mean/rude/stupid things about Judaism to me in elementary school that broke me (“Don’t come near me! I don’t want any of your Jew diseases” was a particular favorite that I still remember), it was the fact that adults were claiming that they were offended when other adults tried to use welcoming language. Some adults were honestly angry that other adults were trying to say something nice to non-Christians about the holidays!
No one else in my grade was non-Christian, who on earth did people think were besieging Christianity and Christmas? It felt, in my homogenous bubble, like the “War on Christmas” sentiment could only be pointed towards one person: me. I, as the only Jew in my class, was a Problem. I and my kind were singlehandedly trying to destroy a fundamentally American tradition: Christmas everywhere, all the time, for everyone. In a town where everyone else believed in Jesus was the Messiah, I must have been the one responsible for this war.
My little brain fried out over this fact in a way that I don’t think most people can really understand. I’d put up with (and even enjoyed in some cases) always being asked to give a presentation on Chanukah in every single elementary school class I was ever in, being the butt of loads of money-lending and big-nosed jokes, regularly being asked to defend the behavior of Jewish people I’d never met, and never having the (important) Jewish holidays as holidays from school… those things were all fine, but grown-ups fighting over this total non-issue, turning words that were previously meant in a positive spirit towards everyone into words of hate and division, that was where some line was crossed for me.
I’ve grown up a bit since then, and I realize that the choice of words in some circumstances really does matter. Words can bring people together to celebrate, or they can divide them by besmirching rather than cherishing peoples’ differences. I’ll still appreciate it when people wish me a genuinely merry Christmas, and I’ll repeat the phrase in return. I’ll also go out of my way to wish everyone a Happy Chanukah and Holidays on Christmas Eve, a fake holiday by most accounts, but the first night of Chanukah this year :)