By Tova Stabin
In the past when people were more apt to say to you “Merry Christmas,” I would, with as much politeness and honesty as possible, say, “Thanks, but I don’t celebrate Christmas, but if you do, I hope you enjoy it.”
Sometimes this would lead to a worthy discussion about different traditions, sometimes it was left where it was, and sometimes the person seemed a bit shocked. Still, at least our proverbial cards, or traditions, were on the table.
In recent years, people thought it more inclusive to say “Happy holidays.” Some are mad that they don’t get to say “Christmas” anymore. Obviously, that’s not me. In a perfect, inclusive world, I’d say “Merry Christmas” to individuals who celebrate, people would say “Happy New Year” to me in the fall at the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), I’d say “Eid Muburak” to observant Muslims, and — you get my drift.
Given that we don’t yet live in a perfect world, it’s easier for me to deal with “Merry Christmas” than “Happy holidays.” I prefer cards on the table.
I work on assuming people are trying their best, as I hope I am. I know many are trying to be inclusive when they say happy holidays. What I hear, however, is that I have a holiday of great importance now, too, at best, or that I am celebrating the holiday they are — the holiday is Christmas, the season is Christmas to (Gregorian) New Year’s; it doesn’t even need to be named to know what we are talking about.
There are many who celebrate holidays of varying importance during wintertime. Some cultures, like Judaism, have significant holidays at other times. As a Jew, my holiday “season” is the fall starting with Jewish New Year and ending with the harvest holiday of Succoth and the celebration of Simchat Torah.
In the spring, there are eight days of Passover. In the winter, there is the minor holiday of Chanukah, not technically a “holiday” in Judaism. Sometimes Chanukah comes close to Christmas, like this year. In other years it’s closer to Thanksgiving because the Jewish calendar is lunisolar and there is an extra month during leap year, which occurs seven times every 19 years. Chanukah is mostly known in the general culture because of its proximity to Christmas. Ironically, a theme of Chanukah is the importance of not assimilating too much into mainstream culture.
I am proud and excited about my traditions, as I know others are. I am glad people enjoy and embrace their unique holidays, and I love hearing about them. I am sometimes invited to friends’ Christian celebrations, as well as traditions of friends who are part of other cultures, religious and secular. I appreciate invites, but it’s always with the understanding that it’s not my tradition and I am a guest, just as I sometimes invite non-Jews to family Passover Seders.
Given all this, while truly I’m not thrilled when people say “Merry Christmas” to me, at least I have the option to let them know it’s not my tradition. When people say “Happy holidays,” I feel my voice, culture and tradition are shut down by unspoken assumption.
When I reply there’s not a holiday for me right now, more often than not I’m told, “But don’t you have a holiday now, too?” or, “Isn’t there a Jewish Christmas about now?” or “Everyone celebrates Christmas, it’s not really religious.”
No, there isn’t a Jewish Christmas; no, there isn’t an important holiday to me now; and no, not everyone celebrates Christmas — religiously or as a Christian cultural secular celebration.
If you want to be inclusive of those with different traditions, take the time to find out what and when is important to them. I’m thrilled when someone says “Happy New Year” to me in the fall. All throughout the year, I’m happy to learn about new traditions and even be an included guest.
This year I’ve been invited to a Sicilian Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. I mostly don’t eat animals and don’t like fish much, but it sounds interesting, and I’m glad to go because I care about my friends and what is important to them.
Finding out what’s important to other people rather than assuming what is important to me is important to others not only broadens my world, but also gives me time to reflect on the significance of my own traditions and helps me appreciate how rich is the fabric of all the communities I travel in.
With all going on in the world, and indeed particularly with so much anti-Semitism, racism, gun violence, discord and more, it’s the least we can do. I guess if it’s “holiday spirit” you’re after, that’s the kind of spirit I can get behind — not just now, but all year and every season. ν
tova stabin is a communication specialist for equity and inclusion at the University of Oregon and a freelance writer. She is an active member of Temple Beth Israel.