If you’re reading this column, you’ve probably already read the by-line. It says “STEIN-Chester.” Yes, it’s out: I’m born to a Jewish mother, which according to Jewish law, makes me a Jew.
Strolling through Orange County’s malls and shopping centers, I should be upset and confused by the lack of Jewish symbols decking the halls. When I buy something around this time of year, I should be outraged at a “Merry Christmas” from a well-wishing store clerk. “Vaht is dis goy, meshuganah,” you imagine me thinking. “Doesn’t he know it’s Hanukah?”
But, it’s not like that at all. Whether you love this time of year, hate it, or are completely indifferent to it, it’s ridiculous to get offended by such a harmless thing as a giant, well-lit pine tree in the middle of a mall and a little Christmas cheer.
Christmas and Hanukah demarcate two things: religious holidays with their own set of stories and lore, and a specific time of year. This is an easy way to think about it, but when you really get into it, the lines aren’t so clear.
The Christmas tree is a pagan tradition that formerly non-Christian Europeans carried on, and the modern, Anglo-Saxon incarnation of Santa Claus bears only a small relation to the Christian St. Nicholas (a rough combination of a German Yuletide folk character, Great Britain’s Father Christmas, and Saint Nicholas himself). These have fused with the religious holiday to become something of a religious/pagan/secular hybrid.
Hanukah has a similar story. Though it marks an important moment in Jewish lore, it isn’t traditionally a gift-giving holiday. American Jews of the 20 century adopted it as such to make sure their kids didn’t feel left out while their blond-haired peers were tearing open bicycles and Barbie dolls from under the Christmas tree. Again, the religious and secular inter-relate. What these holidays have in common, therefore, are what all holidays have in common. They mark a time in the year and celebrate a moment in a particular culture’s history. Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, it’s all the same thing. All “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukah,” and “Happy Holidays” really mean in a public, secular setting is “Happy this time of year.”
Doesn’t saying “Merry Christmas” define your allegiance to a particular group? Yes and no. You wouldn’t hear a Christian saying “Happy Hanukah” to one of his kin, but just the same, it’s not unusual to hear a Christian wish his Jewish compatriot a “Happy Hanukah.” The difference is only made important when one chooses to focus on it.
I might not have a Christmas tree in my home, and I probably won’t go to mass, but whether I’m celebrating Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, I’m participating in a similar ritual. Even if Christmas was held in April (which would coincide nicely with Passover), the holiday would serve the same purpose: marking a time in the year.
Maybe “Happy Holidays” is a more inclusive greeting, but to many it just seems like politically correct fluff designed not to offend people. In the end, it means the same thing as “Merry Christmas.” If people can’t get around the fact that we’re all a little different during the holidays, then when can they?
This season, in principle, is a time of year to take stock and reflect upon the things that make us ourselves, return the love that those who care about us dole out so freely during the year, and give love to other people for no other reason than because it makes everyone feel better.
Whether these things actually come to pass is another debate, but for the purpose of this argument, they should show that being offended by and actively focusing on difference is really a ridiculous thing when such good could come from simply accepting it.
When someone wishes me a “Merry Christmas,” I just respond kindly and hope that this “holiday spirit” lasts a little longer than just the shopping days between Thanksgiving and Dec. 25.