Dr. Stephen Stern
Nov 30, 2022
"The argument for the “Happy Holidays” greeting is that because Christians have been imperialistic, and have erased everyone else (including Jews) from American culture, they now need to include us."
Before Omicron directed my social life, I went to a Christmas party. a.k.a. “holiday party,” at which everyone was boosted and outside. It was brisk, but not cold enough to keep friends from being together. The hosts greeted me with, “Happy Holidays,” to which I said, “Merry Christmas,” and held them hostage to my lecture on why I hate the greeting, “Happy Holidays.” I was the only invited Jew. Their flustered faces and stutter conveyed that “Happy Holidays” was to help me feel included. I apologized too late. I had ruined their greeting. How should they greet me? Better yet, if one doesn’t know I’m Jewish, is it offensive to wish me a Merry Christmas? Yes and no. It’s complicated. Here’s what is going on for me.
“Happy Holidays” confuses inclusion with equality. The idea behind replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” is that there are minority groups in America, e.g., Jews, who are not included. “Happy Holidays” makes Hanukkah the Christmas-equivalent. But this is a false equivalence, and it not only does a disservice to Jews, in wrongly elevating Hanukkah to the sacred, but also by diminishing Christmas, robbing Christians of something that is valuable to them.
The argument for the “Happy Holidays” greeting is that because Christians have been imperialistic, and have erased everyone else (including Jews) from American culture, they now need to include us. But does including us demand that Christians must be punished by not being allowed to have anything Christian in the culture anymore? If we want Christians to stop erasing us Jews, Muslims, Hindus among others, does the greeting “Happy Holidays” erase the Christians themselves? Is the general wishing of Merry Christmas an assault against Americans of other traditions or no traditions?
Many Jews in my world wish to hear “Happy Holidays.” Greeting them should have nothing to do with Christmas. They want no association with a tradition celebrating the robbing and distorting of Judaism’s face. For example, a colleague’s dog received Merry Christmas wishes on Facebook. My colleague responded: “My doggies don’t celebrate Christmas, but they would like to wish you a happy belated Hanukkah!” At another spot on the December-Jewish-greeting spectrum, Jews with trees seem fine with Merry Christmas. Like Halloween, they explain, Christmas is a secular holiday. One might say that their celebration of Christmas is old school. It has nothing to do with Christianity.
Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa are not similar holidays. Conflating Kwanzaa with Christmas in the US seems misguided. Southern enslavers justified enslaving black people through the story of biblical Ham violating his father, Noah; antebellum southern whites argued it destined black people to be enslaved as descendants of Ham. Crazy, right!?! They justified white Christian genocide in the name of a Jew, brown Jesus of Judah. Ham was also brown, but not Jewish. Sarah and Abraham spark the origin of the Israelites. Hanukkah comes over a thousand years later. It celebrates the re-creation of the fourth Jewish state in 166 BCE, when Jewish rebels killed a lot of assimilated Jews. We don’t mention that when we light our hanukkiahs to bring light into the world. Furthermore, it’s not a religious holiday. Jews do not make religious/sacred holidays out of military victories. Jews thus do not desist from ordinary activities and work on Hanukkah. So, what we should say at this time of year to Jews?
The party hosts said, “Happy Holidays” to be inclusive. However, more inclusive inclusion knows the holidays at the time those around us celebrate. Hanukkah has been over for a month. It is Christmastime in the states, not Diwali, not EID, not Rosh Hashanah, not Bodhi day. It’s Christmas, a US federal holiday. A great majority of Americans from differing ethnicities celebrate it.
Ironically, Jews are now included as a December holiday player, just as I was greeted at a Christmas party with “Happy Holidays.” Chabad (a Hasidic sect) lights an annual hanukkiah on the White House lawn, some Jews have trees, a Fox News host recently said a Christmas tree is also a Hanukkah bush, etc. Is it any wonder Christians and non-Jews think Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas? Let’s stop pretending it is. Let’s wish Christians and atheists who descend from Christianity a Merry Christmas. As for Jews with trees? If you want them, Tu Bi Shvat is coming. And for Jews like me, “Hi!”
This was republished from The Times of Israel with permission from the author.
Dr. Stephen Stern is the.co-author with Dr. Steve Gimbel of Reclaiming the WIcked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and the author of The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College.