Today marks the first day of Hanukkah, and tomorrow the first day of Winter, and then, on Saturday, there is Christmas Eve and in the morning, Christmas Day, and right on its heels, Kwanzaa. For weeks now, we have been offering up our vague but heartfelt holiday wishes longing, in this final month of the calendar year, to be festive without offending. For many I’m sure, chirping “Happy Holidays” feels just right, but for me it’s come to sound a bit shallow, a shopping bag wish, and in some ways, a sell-out of my own faith. Still, I’m no fan of the alternative suggested strongly in certain Christian circles: shouting “Merry Christmas” to anyone and everyone in the hopes of regaining supremacy over the season. It doesn’t matter that Christmas was “the first” holiday of the season, or that the others were elevated to a status beyond their own cultural or religious importance just to get a seat at the holiday table. As a professional communicator I can tell you that using “Merry Christmas” as your default greeting is simply the wrong message. A greeting is a gift to the recipient. To wish a Jewish or agnostic friend a “Merry Christmas” is just bad manners, possibly even antagonistic—- like greeting a devout Angels fan with “Go Blue!” It does not make one a better Christian, just a less thoughtful member of a pluralistic society.
Now, if I know someone is a practicing Jew, and if I see them during these eight days of the Festival of Lights, I will joyfully wish them “Happy Hanukkah” because it celebrates what they celebrate. If I had a close friend who celebrated Kwanzaa, I might do the same, but Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday and most of the people who celebrate it also celebrate Christmas. (I tend to think of it as an “insiders” celebration the experience of which would not heightened by an unfamiliar white woman’s well wishes). As for Muslim holidays, since they are set by a lunar calendar, they have yet to get a real toehold in the season: I’m not sure if they even want one but for now our Muslim friends are, greetings-wise, lumped in with the secularists and the Buddhists and Hindis and all the other wonderful souls we have gathered together here in America in the year 2011, united by a love of freedom and a desire to share year-end wishes of goodwill to all.
So here’s what I’m thinking:
*If you know what someone is and what they believe, by all means, wish them that specific thing. It is infinitely more meaningful than something generic.
*On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, feel abundantly free to say “Merry Christmas,” because that is, in fact, the celebration of the day. Non-believing friends with generous hearts can let the sentiment cross their lips, as well.
*When you don’t know what someone is or what they celebrate, wish them a “Merry December.” It is, after all, the one thing we all have in common, this shared space and time. If you are a Christian, it takes nothing away from your own beliefs and, perhaps, in its good-natured approach, creates an opening in a willing heart.
And with that I wish all my Jewish friends a Happy Hanukkah!
And to all my Christian friends, a blessed Advent!
And to all my undeclared or otherwise-occupied friends, a Merry December!
Merry Christmas coming soon…