Popular Culture  •  January 4, 2004   

How “Merry Christmas” Became “Happy Holidays”

I am not Jewish or Christian. I am not an atheist either since questions about God’s existence does not interest me. I find both Judaism and Christianity intriguing, but when it comes to the holiday season, I prefer Christmas over Hanukkah. And, as offensive as it may sound to some Jewish people, I hold Hanukkah responsible for tainting Christmas. I hope my readers would understand that criticizing an aspect of Jewish culture does not constitute anti-Semitism.

Growing up in Japan, my family casually celebrated Christmas. I remember receiving a few Christmas gifts. Christmas is not a major holiday in Japan, but the commercial aspects of it are enthusiastically embraced by many. Since most Japanese are not religious, they readily import anything festive regardless of their religious origins. When I was sixteen, I moved to the States to live with an American family in California. There I experienced the true American Christmas, with a big tree full of decorations, an abundance of gifts, a big family feast, singing and listening to Christmas songs, and reading and watching Christmas stories. I was impressed, or shocked, by how spectacular it was.

Until I moved to New York where I made many Jewish friends, I had never heard of Hanukkah. It was in the early 90′s that I started feeling the pressure to stop saying “Merry Christmas” around the holiday season. It was replaced by a more generic, politically-correct version, “Happy holidays.” For me, being able to say, “Merry Christmas!” to anyone was a beautiful thing, even though I’m not Christian. Now, I have to keep my Christmas spirit in check to avoid offending Jewish people.

“Christmas for Jews—How Hanukkah became a major holiday” by David Greenberg explains the history and the politics of Hanukkah. According to it, around 1900, the first generation of Eastern European Jews embraced Christmas and “installed Christmas trees in their homes and thought nothing of the carols their children sang in the public schools.” I’ve observed that second-generation immigrants are more prone to having identity crises because the American culture insists on maintaining our immigrant heritage. Since second-generation Americans only have secondhand knowledge of it, they naturally feel insecure about it. The identities our society projects on us are in conflict with the identities we feel inside. From this perspective, it makes sense that the second-generation Jews began questioning the idea of celebrating Christmas. We must feel secure and confident in our own values before we can embrace the values of others.

The commercialized aspects of Christmas have no historical basis in Christianity, but we enjoy it anyway. If Jewish people are envious of the dazzling nature of Christmas, why don’t they just celebrate Christmas? Why do they have to invent their own holiday to compete with Christmas?

If Hanukkah truly was a major holiday, it would be understandable, but it isn’t. Jewish people simply used the otherwise minor festival as an excuse to compete with Christmas. In effect, they used the holiday season as a platform for asserting their religious identity. Imagine Chinese-Americans digging out a historical event around St. Patrick’s Day just so that they can compete with the Irish on the street. Imagine if we were no longer allowed to say “Happy St. Patrick’s Day!” and instead had to say something like, “Happy drinking day.” Imagine if all holidays were used as platforms for asserting our religious identities, each religion digging out some minor historical event as an excuse to compete with the major one. No festivals of religious origins would be enjoyable.

One Jewish friend recently told me that her family has always celebrated Christmas, but they made sure that no Christmas artifacts can be seen from outside. Why should they have to feel guilty for celebrating Christmas? What is wrong with enjoying a festival that happens to originate in a religion other than your own? Should I feel guilty on St. Patrick’s Day, if I claimed that I am Irish for the day?

Saying “Happy Hanukkah” to someone just because he is Jewish, could also be offensive. What if he wants to celebrate Christmas? By saying “Happy Hanukkah” to him, we would be insinuating that he is doing something wrong. Just because he is Jewish, does not mean that he should or he has to celebrate Hanukkah. It is unfair to assume this.

If you were confident of your own religious beliefs and identity, appreciating the customs of other religions should not be harmful. If enjoying Christmas would weaken your faith in Judaism, you have only yourself to blame.

A book called “Every Person’s Guide to Judaism” poses a question to the Jews who celebrate Christmas:

“Do non-Christians have the right to trivialize one of the most sacred and most important days of the Christian year?”

Here the desire to discourage Jewish people from enjoying Christmas is disguised as their respect for Christians. The answer to this question depends on whether Christians would say yes or no. If by “trivialize” the authors mean enjoying the common customs associated with Christmas—installing a tree, exchanging gifts, singing carols, reading stories—the answer by the vast majority of Christians would be yes. That is, they would encourage Jewish people to “trivialize” Christmas. After all, our government officially designated Christmas as a national holiday. If Christians are happy with Christmas being a national holiday, non-Christians have the right to do whatever we want to do with Christmas. Otherwise, what else would Christians expect non-Christians to do on “Christmas Day”?

Besides, if “trivializing” of other people’s religions is unethical, how about trivializing of their own religion? Hanukkah today is clearly a trivialized version of the original. If trivializing of Christmas is unethical, trivializing of Hanukkah by Jewish people should be immoral by their own standard. Which makes more sense? To trivialize something that you are invited to trivialize, or to trivialize your own religion that you are not supposed to trivialize?

As someone who is religiously neutral, I would like to suggest that we all let others fully enjoy their religious holidays without tainting them. If they invite everyone to join in their fun, let’s gladly accept the offer. If they do not want their holidays to be “trivialized” by non-believers, then let’s respect that wish too. If Jewish people want to trivialize Purim by turning it into a Halloween-like costume party, I would gladly join the fun.