Thursday, November 29, 2012

Why "Happy Holidays" Matters

I remember a day about fifteen years ago when I opened my mailbox and discovered I had a Christmas card from a couple in my theater group.  It gave me all kinds of warm fuzzies to see they had decided to include me on their holiday card list after all of the years they had known me. I happily opened up the card. 

I received a bit of a surprise when I pulled it from the envelope.  The front of the card said something like, "Celebrate the Festival of Lights."  Opening up the card I read sentiments on the deep meanings of Hanukkah, wishing me the happiest Hanukkah ever.

I had some truly mixed feelings once I read the card.  I was still pleased with the fact that my friends had sent me a card.  I was gracious enough to accept the gesture of good will.  I was not terribly pleased that they were wishing me a happy Hanukkah when Hanukkah was not a holiday I celebrated nor was it one I had ever celebrated.  It smarted a little that people who had known me since I was a teen had assumed what my religious background was and had never even bothered to inquire (if they had, I suppose they would have found out quickly that my background was the same as theirs - Catholic - and that a Christmas card would have been appropriate). 

For my entire I have been mistaken for being Jewish.  I have a Germanic last name, and Germanic countries are often associated with Judaism in an area heavily populated with Jews.  I have an Old-Testament first name, which is also often associated with Judaism.  I have dark, Mediterranean features.  It's pretty easy to assume I'm Jewish given the surface evidence.  However, if you dig beneath the surface and actually ask me what my background is, you'll learn the facts.  My last name is the legacy of my Swiss grandfather (about .2% of Switzerland's population is Jewish so it's hard to use that ethnicity as proof).  My physical appearance is the result of having two Italian grandmothers.  My parents just liked the name Rachel.  To complicate things further, my husband is Jewish.  It's easy for his friends, family, and acquaintances to assume that he would marry within the tribe. Most of the time the confusion hasn't caused anyone any serious embarrassment. Occasionally I'll mention in a group that people always think I'm Jewish and that often produces a chorus of, "You're not?" I can't escape the assumptions and it usually doesn't mean anything.

Coming from a Christian background and being mistaken for Jewish does give me a unique perspective on this whole "War on Christmas" crap.  The current justification for saying, "Merry Christmas" among Christians is that they are simply wishing you well and that you should take that for what it's worth.  To a certain extent I agree.  We should appreciate when someone is simply giving us a greeting of joy on a holiday regardless of whether or not we celebrate it.  That being said, unless you are on the receiving end of a holiday greeting for a holiday you don't celebrate, you will never understand just how weird it feels.  I read a very funny quote from a Jewish guy years ago who said being wished "Merry Christmas" is like being wished, "Happy Birthday," when it's someone else's birthday. 

When someone wishes me, "Happy Hanukkah," my first thought isn't, "How nice of you to say that."  It's, "I'm not Jewish.  I don't celebrate Hanukkah.  Don't assume things about me.  I don't want you to feel bad that you wasted a holiday wish on someone who won't be lighting candles tonight."  Why should wishing "Merry Christmas" to a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Pagan feel any less strange to them?  Christians will never get this.  If I said to a Christian, "Happy Saturnalia," how would they really feel about it?  What if I really were a devout practitioner of Solstice celebrations and truly wanted that Christian to have a good December 21st?  Would that feel any better to them or would they angrily respond, "I'm a CHRISTIAN"?

Sometimes I have this sense of not wanting to hurt people's feelings.  One September Friday a Jewish colleague wished me a Happy New Year (see, it's not just about Christmas) and I sheepishly wished her a Happy New Year in return.  I'm sure she believed, as everyone else does, that I'm Jewish and was speaking on the assumption that I would be celebrating Rosh Hoshanna. While I appreciated the sentiment, I only celebrate New Year's Day once a year and I'm afraid that's in January.  I didn't want to embarrass her by telling her that. I also wondered if I were somehow unworthy of the sentiment. I felt fake.  I felt like a fraud.  If I said to her, "I'm not Jewish," would she say, "Fine.  I take it back"? 

The War on Christmas paranoiacs love to quote Ben Stein on the topic.  That's fine that Ben Stein isn't offended by people wishing him "Merry Christmas."  I also don't think he speaks for all Jews. I think he has his lips permanently affixed to the butt cheeks of the religious right because he wants to maintain political ties with them.  It also makes me wonder if this whole "War on Christmas" is more political than religious.  We have a vocal group of Christians in this country who want the lion's share of political power and want to take over the government as much as possible.  They are using Christmas and Christmas displays as a way of wedging their religion into the public sphere under the name of religious freedom.  Very few non-Christians are offended at a Christmas display in a private home, a church, or private club.  The issue is that such religious displays should not be on government-owned, publicly-funded areas such as schools, public parks, and government offices.  This implies the government is sponsoring a particular religion and government sponsored religion is in direct conflict with the Constitution.  The War on Christmas crowd refuses to believe that.  They claim any objection to removing the trappings of one particular relgion from the public sphere means an all-out assault on their religion and the removal of their rights to celebrate the holiday.

When Kevin and I used to send out Christmas cards, we sent generic, happy holidays/seasons greetings cards to everyone.  We have a mix of friends and family who range in religious beliefs from Jewish to super-Catholic.  Rather than have to nitpick over who gets what cards, we sent cards that conveyed our love and goodwill no matter what specific holiday they celebrated.  We still received Hanukkah cards in return.  We also received Christmas cards.  Some of those Christmas cards have been so blatantly Christian in sentiment that I found myself cringing on Kevin's behalf.  We made an effort to send our well wishes no matter what the religion, but it seemed that family wasn't willing to give us the same respect.  I sometimes wondered if friends and family weren't trying to convert Kevin and bring me back into the fold.  I'll admit that I was less offended by Hanukkah cards.  That's partially because they usually came from Kevin's Jewish friends and family and also because Christianity is rooted in Old Testament traditions.  Christian beliefs are diametrically opposed to Judaism and to me it seems very insensitive to push Jesus on someone whose religion does not acknowledge Him as God.

Do people realize just how insensitive it is to bestow holiday wishes on someone who doesn't celebrate that holiday?  Maybe the other person doesn't mind, but why do you want so badly to risk offending someone who does mind? 

If my friends had just sent a generic "Seasons Greetings" card fifteen years ago, I would never have felt conflicted.

This brings me to the question I ask every year:  If a non-Christian is not allowed to be offended if you assume they are Christian and wish them, "Merry Christmas," then why is it you are allowed to be offended if someone who doesn't know you are Christian wishes you "Happy Holidays"?  What if someone knows you're Christian, but spends time around non-Christians, and says, "Happy Holidays" out of habit?  Why are you allowed to whip yourself into a frenzy because they didn't say "Merry Christmas"?

Let's get a few things straight:

When others wish you "Happy Holidays", they are not doing so because they hate you.

When others wish you "Happy Holidays", they are not deliberately disrespecting your religion.

When others wish you "Happy Holidays", they are not telling you that you personally can't celebrate Christmas.

When others wish you "Happy Holidays", they are not trying to outlaw your religion.

Chances are saying, "Happy Holidays" is just their way of showing respect.  If they don't know someone's religious observances, they aren't going to assume what those beliefs are and thus give you a generic wish of good will. 

If a business hangs a "Happy Holidays" sign in the window, it's likely because the owners want to be inclusive and make money off of all customers.  It's also more cost effective to hang a single sign that says, "Happy Holidays" than it is to hang a sign that says, "Happy Thanksgiving," a sign that says, "Merry Christmas," a sign that says, "Happy Hanukkah," and a sign that says, "Happy New Year." 

Why is this so hard to understand?  "Happy Holidays" isn't hate speech.  It's a way to be inclusive. 

So my biggest Christmas wish continues.  Can we please end this ridiculous, "War on Christmas" paranoia already?

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