Popular Culture  •  January 4, 2004

How “Merry Christmas” Became “Happy Holidays”

I am not Jewish or Christian. I do not subscribe to any organized forms of religions. I am not an atheist either since I could not say, or would not say, for sure that God does not exist. In fact, I tend more towards the idea that God does exist. I do not favor or incline towards Judaism or Christianity. I find them both intriguing, but when it comes to the holiday season, I prefer Christmas over Hanukkah. And, as offensive as it may sound to 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.

As I grew up in Japan, my family celebrated Christmas in a minor way. I remember receiving a few Christmas gifts. Christmas is not a major holiday in Japan, but it is widespread. Since most Japanese are not religious, they readily embrace anything festive regardless of their religious origins. When I was 16, under an exchange program, I moved to the States and lived with an American family in California. There I experienced true American Christmas with a big tree, abundance of gifts, a big family feast, singing and listening to Christmas songs, and reading and watching Christmas stories. I was very much impressed with the spectacular nature of the whole festival.

Until I moved to New York where I made many Jewish friends, I had never heard of Hanukkah. Even in New York, it is only about 8 years ago that I started feeling pressure to stop using “Merry Christmas” as a general form of greeting around the holiday season. It was replaced by a more generic, politically-correct version, “Happy holidays”. At first, I did not think anything of this change, but now that the pressure has increased, I am bothered by it. For me, being able to say, “Merry Christmas!” to anyone was a beautiful thing. Now, I have to keep my Christmas spirit in check in order not to offend Jewish people. Part of the beauty of Christmas spirit is to be open to anyone of any backgrounds. The idea behind saying “Merry Christmas” is to spread the joy. It is not an expression of solidarity among Christians. It is meant for everyone. Why should it offend or annoy anyone?

“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.” In general, second generation immigrants are more prone to identity crisis, because our society insists on categorizations based on ethnicity or nationality of which they have only secondhand knowledge. That is, there is a discrepancy between the identity that our society projects on them and the identity they feel inside. Some choose to yield to how they feel inside, while others end up yielding to the forces outside. Thus a second generation Japanese person, for instance, would be pressured by our society to learn something about Japanese culture, unable to fully enjoy being an American that he is.

This is merely my own speculation, but it therefore makes sense for the second generation Jews to start questioning their embracing of Christmas. Since they felt insecure of their Jewishness inside, they needed to reinforce it by means of symbolism. They could no longer afford to celebrate Christmas since it symbolically weakened their identity.

Christmas is family entertainment of Christian origin. The banal, commercialized customs associated with Christmas have no real historical basis in Christianity, but we enjoy it anyway. If Jewish people are envious of the dazzling nature of Christmas, or if they feel pressure from their kids to do something festive, why don’t they just celebrate Christmas? Why do they have to invent their own festival to compete with Christmas?

If Hanukkah truly was a major holiday, it would be understandable, but it isn’t. Jews simply used the otherwise minor festival as an excuse to compete with Christmas. In effect, the holiday season turned into a platform for asserting religious identity. Imagine if the Chinese-American population in the States dug out a historical event to coincide with St. Patrick’s Day to use as an excuse to get drunk, just because they were envious of Irish people getting drunk in the street. Imagine if we were no longer allowed to say “Happy St. Patrick’s Day!”, and instead had to say, “Happy drinking day.” Imagine if all festive days were used as platforms for asserting religious identities; each religion digging out some piece of history as an excuse to compete with everyone else. No festivals of religious origins would be truly 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? It is just a piece of family entertainment that has very little to do with Christian beliefs anyway. Should I feel guilty on St. Patrick’s Day, if I claimed that I am Irish for the day?

In this sense, to say “happy Hanukkah” to someone just because he is Jewish, could be just as offensive as saying “Merry Christmas” to him. What if he wants to celebrate Christmas? By saying “happy Hanukkah” to him, you are implying 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 and comfortable with your own religious beliefs and identity, learning, understanding, and appreciating customs of other religions could not possibly be harmful. If enjoying Christmas would weaken your faith in Judaism, you have only yourself to blame, not Christmas.

A book called “Every Person’s Guide to Judaism” raises an interesting question to 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?”

To me, this argument seems to come more from the authors’ desire to discourage their fellow Jews from enjoying Christmas than their wish to respect Christians. The answer to this question depends on whether Christians would say yes or no. If by “trivialize” the authors mean observing of 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. A definitive proof of this fact is that Christmas is a national holiday endorsed by the government in this multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-religious nation. If Christians are happy with making Christmas a national holiday, then non-Christians have the right to do whatever they want to do with Christmas. Otherwise, what else do Christians expect non-Christians to do on “Christmas Day”? Non-Christians are officially given the right to “trivialize” Christmas by the sheer fact that it is a national holiday.

Furthermore, if “trivializing” of other people’s religion is unethical, then how about trivializing of one’s own religion? Modern Hanukkah is clearly a trivialized version of the original. I would say, if trivializing of Christmas is unethical, then trivializing of Hanukkah by Jewish people should be immoral by their own standard. Or, at least, it would defeat the whole point of believing in their own religion, if they are going to trivialize it. Which makes more sense? To trivialize something that you are invited to trivialize, or to trivialize your own religion that does not encourage trivialization?

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