Happy Hanumas? Ditch Season’s Greetings

by Linda K. Wertheimer
(originally posted on Jewish Muse)

Happy Hanumas? Happy Chrismakah? Merry Chanukah? The winter holidays are fast approaching. It’s time for non-celebrants of Christmas to read yourselves for the onslaught of seasonal niceties from store clerks and acquaintances. No one, of course, will blend a greeting that pays tribute to Jewish and Christian holidays. Most will tell me, “Merry Christmas,” or “Happy Holidays.” No one will likely utter Happy Chanukah.

Am I bitter about this? No, I’m a mature adult. I live in a country dominated by Christianity. Christmas is the one holiday that leads to a shutdown of nearly every business in America. But do I wish that store clerks would skip seasonal greetings? Yes. We get the message that a big holiday is coming our way. How about just saying, “Have a great day!”?

It did grate on me through my teen years to feel like I was breathing, living, and hearing Christmas everywhere I went from late fall through the end of December. I lived in a small Ohio town where there were few Jews, where the nearest temple was an hour’s drive away. Unlike in the Boston area, where I now live, my neighbors had little knowledge of the existence of Chanukah, let alone the much more significant Jewish holidays of Passover, Yom Kippur, and Rosh HaShanah.If we wanted to buy dreidels or chocolate coins, we had to drive an hour.

Christmas in childhood was the most isolating time of my life. The world around me decked itself out in red and green. Our house had no decorations. My family, rightly so, made no attempt to compete with Christmas. We lit candles on Hanukkah and exchanged presents, but our celebration was low-key.

Unless Hanukkah fell during school break, I was at school almost everyday of the holiday. During that time, I was often practicing flute or attending chorus rehearsals for the school Christmas concerts. There was no attempt by my school to acknowledge the existence of Hanukkah. I enjoyed most of the concert repertoire save the songs that required me to sing praises to the Lord Jesus. Those particular hymns made me feel like I was being asked to practice someone else’s religion. But Jingle Bells, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, those I liked.

I actually love a lot about Christmas. When I lived in western New York State earlier in childhood, I often went to my best friend’s house around Christmas time. I remember helping decorate the Christmas tree with stringed popcorn. As a young adult, I accompanied a friend to Christmas mass and reveled in the beauty of the Christmas music. These were my choices to join friends in a celebration of their holiday, and they sometimes joined me in the lighting of the Hanukkah candles. No one presumed that I celebrated Christmas. No one presumed that everything I bought between Halloween and Dec. 25 was a gift for someone else.

Yes, I don’t want store clerks to say Merry Christmas to me. I don’t want them to say Happy Chanukah either. Or Happy Holidays. Or Season’s Greetings. I’m not a grump about holidays. I’d just prefer that those who know me give the appropriate greeting, and vice versa – if we feel so inclined. None of us should presume what someone else celebrates. Maybe just say, “Happy Day!”

Note: Christmas tree illustration by Luigi Diamanti used courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net.

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18 Responses to “Happy Hanumas? Ditch Season’s Greetings”

  1. avatar

    Actually, Thanksgiving is the one holiday that leads to the shutdown of most American businesses, much more so than Christmas. Most Jews, like their gentile counterparts, don’t notice because it’s a holiday almost all of us share in, so we aren’t looking for things to do outside the home on that day.

  2. avatar

    Or maybe we can just presume innocent good will on the part of others unless we have a sound reason to think otherwise.

  3. avatar

    I had a friend years ago whose stock response to “Have a good day” was “Sorry, I’ve made other plans.”
    What’s much more annoying to me than being greeted with wishes for the “wrong” holiday is the campaign we read about to punish those companies as anti-Christian who choose to use “neutral” phrases like Season’s Greetings.
    Let’s recognize that the people who confer these holiday greetings don’t really care what kind of Chanukah or Christmas or Kwanza you have — they’re filling air space. Mark Tasch’s suggestion of presuming innocent good will is altogether sensible.

  4. avatar

    @ Larry Kaufman:
    Thanks for sharing your friend’s retort to “Have a good day.” That line made my day!

  5. avatar

    “I enjoyed most of the concert repertoire save the songs that required me to sing praises to the Lord Jesus. Those particular hymns made me feel like I was being asked to practice someone else’s religion. But Jingle Bells, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, those I liked.”
    Well, that’s too bad, since the Holiday repertoire which contains the Christian devotional lyrics is usually much better music than “Jingle Bells” and the like. If I were in such a choir, it would be to make good music, not to sing texts which I find agreeable and inspirational. Why should religious texts that we cannot personally affirm ruin our enjoyment of beautiful music? We are not practicing someone else’s religion unless we INTEND the texts as we sing them.

  6. avatar

    @ Jordan
    I understand where you’re coming from, and I’ll relate something my Rabbi just told me a few days ago. Words do matter. The music itself is fine and very beautiful, but it’s the lyrics that are problematical. Yes this great music was written with a liturgical intent for Christians. They’re songs about Jesus, affirming his status in Christianity, and saying them is affirming them to a degree. We Jews don’t believe he’s the Messiah or the son of God, period. So it’s inappropriate for us to claim otherwise, even if simply singing songs that personally may not have much meaning to us. But it also can hurt or be upsetting, and I’ve heard stories from people who had to sing such songs as children and it made them very uncomfortable.

  7. avatar

    @ Jordan and @Chris
    Although my practice of Reform Judaism allows me to take words metaphorically, the early Reformers were very sensitive to our not praying or saying words we do not mean, or that do not coincide with our (rational) beliefs.
    Thus rather than talking about a Redeemer, they talked about redemption; rather than suggesting resurrection, they talked about eternal life; rather than talking about a unique Jewish destiny, they praised God’s universal attributes.
    So while I can listen with pleasure to Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s B-Minor Mass, I am not prepared to sing along, whether in a secular or religious setting.

  8. avatar

    No one wants to hear me sing, so Christian hymns are not an issue for me. In a Reform temple, I have become unwilling to pray or say words that I do not mean, words whose meaning I explicitly disbelieve. I have also become unwilling to pray or say words that I do not understand, which means most words that are not in the only language in which I am fluent.

  9. avatar

    For seven years, age 4 to ll, we lived in New Braunfels, Texas a small town of 5000 people, 4 Jewish families. My Dad had a dress factory and was respected in the town. In fact, strange as was, Lions club had a Christmas party and who dressed as Santa,my Jake, my Dad. We knew it was not our holiday and were given the treat of throwing icicles on the neighbors tree. I was a singer, even at that age and when in school I was in every Christmas play. I knew I was Jewish and the holiday did not bother me. When salespeople say Merry Christmas I used to tell the we celebrate Chanukah and they smile and I smile and we go merrily on our ways. No problem. I did resent my children”s school when they sang “we wish you a Merry Christmas, etc” and then continue with “we wish you a Happy Chanukah”. We don’t need equal time but I guess because we had a good number of Jewish children in the school she was doing the correct thing she thought.

  10. avatar

    @ Chris and Larry
    “But it also can hurt or be upsetting, and I’ve heard stories from people who had to sing such songs as children and it made them very uncomfortable.”
    Of course it’s reprehensible to force children to sing things which make them uncomfortable. My point is that responsible, adult Jews who are also musicians can most assuredly sing in performances of Christian Liturgical music without committing apostasy. If it’s a concert setting, we are performing beautiful music for an audience, and acknowledging the Christian devotional inspiration which motivated the great composers to write such beautiful music. We are not ourselves worshipping in a Christian way. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is equally “safe” for Jewish musicians to sing in Christian worship as part of a professional choir, since we can respect their devotion and even share in the joy with which they praise God through music, even though we do not personally subscribe to a Trinitarian God-model. Personally, if offered such a position, I could even serve as organist/music director for a liberal Protestant Church with no qualms, even as I consider myself a faithful and observant Jew.
    I am surprised that any non-Orthodox Jew could be so allergic to the idea of Jews singing beautiful music which happens to have Christian lyrics. I grew up listening to great masterpieces of Christian Liturgical music being sung by a community choir in a Conservative Synagogue, since its Sanctuary was the concert venue. The setting was not worship, but a concert. If a largely old-fashioned Conservative congregation in the Chicago suburbs can tolerate the singing of Jesus-filled texts in its sanctuary by a choir largely made up of Jewish singers, then we on the URJ blogs, who represent the cutting edge of Judaism’s most liberal branch, can surely take at least as liberal a stance.
    Of course, when actually worshipping, it’s a different story. Whenever I find myself in the pews of a Church, such as for weddings, funerals, or just accompanying my Church-going friends, I’m always scanning ahead in the liturgy and hymns to find Trinitarian references, which I skip over when reading or singing. I find that in most liberal mainline Protestant Churches, I can say and sing about half of the liturgy because it’s not explicitly Trinitarian. There’s something really nice about being able to participate in the worship of another faith, and I even know of a Rabbi who does something similar. I am disheartened when so many in the Reform Movement frown upon such frank expressions of pluralism. If Catholicism and most of Liberal Protestantism have been able to affirm that the practice of Judaism is a valid way to serve God, despite our non-Trinitarian understanding of God, then we could at least show some good will and stop criticizing our own ilk for singing their music.

  11. avatar
    Linda K. Wertheimer Reply November 22, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    I very much appreciate all the different responses to my musings about season’s greetings.
    I want to weigh in on the discussion about being required to sing religious Christmas hymns in grade school.
    I am a long-time flutist and singer and could not agree more with @Jordan’s comments that some of the religious Christmas hymns are more beautiful musically. The problem is, these were songs I was required to sing as a member of my public high school chorus. They were songs that definitely were akin to praying. Most importantly, it made me very uncomfortable to sing them, and there was no opportunity to opt out.
    As an adult, I had a starring role in a community theater production of Godspell. The difference? This was my choice. And it was most definitely by its very nature – acting.
    @Chris Beautifully put about how having to sing things they don’t believe in can be very uncomfortable for children. My point exactly.

  12. avatar

    Naturally, I agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Wertheimer that it is categorically wrong to force or pressure children to sing things which make them uncomfortable. I am only concerned when I hear Reform Jews suggesting that there is anything problematic about Jewish musicians participating BY THEIR OWN CHOICE in performances of sacred music from other religious traditions. Such participation does not constitute the practice of another religion if we do not wish it to.

  13. avatar

    @Jordan Friedman
    I still do not understand why it is not problematic to sing or recite words one does not believe in English, German, or Latin, but is problematic, as you have stated in other contexts, in Hebrew.

  14. avatar

    @ Larry
    That’s easy–in those contexts you recall, the offending words were to be uttered as part of Jewish worship, which means that they ARE to be “intended” in a way that musical texts in other contexts are not. I cannot be fully comfortable in a worship Service which contains text that I cannot proclaim with every fiber of my being. Such “offending” sections are thankfully quite rare in Reform worship Liturgy, even in its most recent, disturbingly traditional iteration. The only example I can think of off the top of my head is “shelo asanu k’goyey ha-aratzot” in the Aleinu. That’s why I tend to prefer the now-almost-unheard-of CR “Adoration”, even though I actually do happen to like much of the Hebrew text of the traditional Aleinu.

  15. avatar

    @ Jordan:
    You said:
    “I actually do happen to like much of the Hebrew text of the traditional Aleinu.”
    Would that part of the Hebrew text that makes your good list just happen to include the words. “Liskane Olam?”

  16. avatar

    Our family has always celebrated Hanuka as a triumphant chapter in the fight for religious liberty (a theme with resonates with American Jews). For the festival of lights, there were lights on the trees and bushes and often a door decoration like a giant homemade dreidal made from styrafoam covered in shiny blue paper or a cheery Happy Hanuka sign. My mother made an entire scene of fighting Macabees on the fireplace mantel. Each night we gathered round the hanukiah, sang Rock of Ages (some nights), said a prayer (every night) and then their were presents. Children got some gift, no matter how small, every night. We had dinners for family and friends with potato pancakes, fried chicken and other holiday foods. I don’t remember any Jew who felt left out or jealous. In fact, some of our Christian friends thought it would be great of have a holiday lasting eight days.
    We never begrudged the Christians having their own celebrations. In fact we realized how important their holiday was to them and wished them all a Merry Christmas.
    Isn’t it wonderful that Americans of all faiths can celebrate together the major religious holiday of Thanksgiving before the Christmas/Hanuka season and then, as soon as the sectarian holidays end, celebrate together New Year’s Day?

  17. avatar

    @ M.Z. Mark
    I have never actually attended a service (since I was old enough to remember) in which the “al kein” section was included in the Aleinu. I suppose what I’ve been calling the “traditional” Aleinu is actually an already truncated text consisting only of the standard “Aleinu l’shabeach” and the “va’anachnu” paragraph.
    Of course, “l’takein olam b’malchut shaddai” is a nice message, referring to the work of tikkun olam–perfecting the world. That phrase certainly does not clash with my worldview, but the reprehensible “shelo asanu” clause is so offensive that were I to prayerfully utter it, I think I might feel the need to atone for it the next Yom Kippur.
    So, I suppose that there are two formulations of Aleinu that are acceptable to me (and hopefully, acceptable to God as well). In descending order of preference (for me), they are:
    1. The old Classical Reform “Adoration”, consisting of an English paraphrasing of the “Aleinu l’shabeach” paragraph and “shehu notein” through “ein od”, followed by the “va’anachnu” paragraph in both English and Hebrew.
    2. A formulation of the Hebrew texts of both above paragraphs, but somehow creatively avoiding “shelo asanu”. Such a text actually exists in GOP, but I’m not sure if it’s in MT.
    @ M.B.
    I couldn’t agree more! If only more people, Jews especially, were as open-minded and clear-headed as you and your family. One day, when I have kids, I will make sure they have a Hanukkah experience that is both festive and intellectually honest/pluralistic.
    I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and I wish you and yours a very happy Hanukkah as well.


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