When I turned 14, I was excited to get my first job at Publix. I bagged groceries until just after my 18th birthday.
For the most part, I enjoyed interacting with people on the short walk to their cars. But around mid-December, I'd be filled with anxiety during my chats with customers. They'd ask about holiday plans, and then talk about their holiday plans. So far, so good. But then they'd say two words. And despite the dozens of interactions that ended with these two words, I never knew how I should respond.
I knew that people said Merry Christmas as a way of being nice. But I also was raised to be a proud Jew. Although I joyfully played Christmas songs during band concerts, I also remember when my mother came with me to discuss with my band director that bowing our heads in prayer to Jesus just before the band banquet is not an appropriate activity. So, when someone said Merry Christmas to me, I sometimes responded by saying you too. Sometimes, Happy holidays. And if I was feeling particular gumption, I'd say, Thank you, but I don't celebrate Christmas.
And so tonight I ask, how do we respond? How do we respond to Christmas?
To start, I want to be very clear about something. Hannukah is not the Jewish Christmas.
As a kid, though, boy did I want it to be the Jewish Christmas. I wanted a tree, I wanted to wake up early in the morning and unwrap all sorts of presents. And since I had Hannukah, I tried desperately to give Hannukah as much significance as Christmas.
For those of you that have raised children, I would imagine that you had to navigate these difficult situations with your kids, especially here in Athens GA where most of their friends probably did celebrate Christmas. It's easy to feel different, like we don't fit in, and that we aren't like everyone else.
But here's the thing, Hannukah just isn't as important as Christmas. For religious Christians, Christmas is as important as Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. And for religious Jews, Hannukah is a minor holiday - one that isn't even mentioned in our Torah!
And so I suggest that we stop trying to make Hannukah the Jewish version of Christmas. Instead of getting Hannukah to "fit" into Christmas, we should try and celebrate the fact that we are different. The holidays are different There doesn't need to be an equivalence between representations of Christmas and Hannukah.
In what seems like a cosmic twist of chronological proximity, it's interesting to me that Hannukah and Christmas are close to each other, because the message of Hannukah is a challenge to proudly express our Jewish identity even though we are a minority. ...
This is all well and good, but this philosophical approach will probably not work for a child. Many of our families struggle with the fact that their kids want Christmas. They want a tree. They want the caroling, the cookies, the early morning breakfast.
And this is why I do have a problem when people say Merry Christmas, whether it be at the Dr.'s office, the grocery store, and even last night on Christmas Eve at the Chinese restaurant.
It is alienating. It's not that I don't like Christmas - I do! Like I said, growing up, I loved the Christmas break, I loved playing Christmas songs in band ... Heck, right now I'm a rabbi in a Klezmer band that does a version of Must be Santa! And as a Jew passionate about human rights and justice, I love the themes of Christmas - peace, family, joy, gratitude.
But, Merry Christmas is part of a world-view that assumes that everyone celebrates Christmas. It can make some of us that don't celebrate Christmas feel awkward or lonely, like we don't belong.
One of the most important lessons we can teach out kids is how to interact with people that are different than us. Religion can play a big part of that. This is why it is so important that our schools teach about other holidays and other traditions. I don't think that our December Dilemma is about Christmas being "better" than our holiday traditions. The dilemma stems from Christmas being portrayed as if it's "Christmas or bust." Christmas is not the only reality.
So what do we do?
I think we need to be proactive. Before mid-December hits, parents should talk to their children's teachers about the need for cultural and religious diversity to be expressed during the holiday season. I have found that teachers are very receptive to these kinds of discussions.
We need to gently explain why one sole display of Christmas images may make us feel uncomfortable or alienated, explaining the need for other representations of other holidays, such as Hannukah and Kwanza.
On our end, we need to talk to our kids more about our wonderfully fun, meaningful and specifically Jewish holidays - Purim, Passover, Hannukah, Sukkot.
Lastly, we need to educate ourselves as well. Just as Christmas is so much more than a tree and some songs, Hannukah is so much more than a menorah and a dreidel.
Today is one of the holiest days of the year for billions around the world. I want to wish our Christian members of our congregation and the Christians around the world a very Merry, holy Christmas. And I want to wish us a Shabbat Shalom. They exist together, as we exist together.