Happy… Merry… what is your holiday, anyway?

Posted on December 15, 2005

Disclaimer: They say you should never talk about religion or politics in “polite” company. I’m going to talk about both. What follows is my own opinion and my own feelings on the topic. I respect that others have differing opinions and expect that said people will respect my right to my opinions, too. I am not interested in debating this topic or hashing out whose opinion is more correct. BTDT. Flames toward anyone (including me) and anti-Jewish rhetoric will not be tolerated on this site.

Now, on to the topic at hand…

Is it just me, or has the whole “Holiday” versus “Christmas” thing gotten out of hand?

Not long ago, tempers ignited over whether the decorated tree at the Minnesota Governor’s Mansion should be called a Christmas tree or a Holiday tree. It was all over the news. Officially, it is a “Holiday Tree.”

To me, when I see an evergreen tree, all decked out in lights and various baubles, it is, unequivocally, a Christmas tree. I am not offended by it being called a Christmas tree. There is no way anyone is going to confuse a Christmas tree and my Chanukah menorah, so why not call it a Christmas tree?

Enter my friend Jeanice.

Jeanice celebrates Solstice, and in keeping with the history of the holiday, she has a tree. A Solstice tree. This I had not heard of before, so I asked her for more information. This is what she had to say:

True Solstice trees are not cut down but left outside and “decorated” with food for the animals so that they could feast as well during the Solstice celebration. People always had a grand feast, so the animals should, too. The idea of light on the tree started as candles on the trees so they, too, could celebrate the rebirth of the sun. During the dark times, before the Solstice, pine bows were brought inside to help connect with nature since people spent most of their time inside due to the darkness. Holly berries were still on the bushes and the only sign of color in nature, hence the red, green and white colors.

Okay, so now there are possible grounds to call it a Holiday tree. I’m still leaning toward checking out the tree before naming it. If it’s cut down, decorated with glass bulbs and candy canes, chances are pretty good it’s a Christmas tree. If it has candles (or maybe lights for safety reasons), food, and especially if it’s still rooted, it’s very possibly a Solstice tree.

Although either way, there is no chance whatsoever that it’s a Chanukah tree.

But the details of the governor’s tree (which is rooted and decorated only with white lights, thus creating possible religious confusion) are not nearly as important as the intent behind the naming conventions.

State officials claim that by calling it a Holiday tree, they are attempting to be inclusive. They explain that the governor cannot endorse any particular religion over another, and to call it a Christmas tree may give the implication that the state is endorsing Christianity to the exclusion of other religions.

Opponents, the most vocal of whom are devout – often fundamentalist – Christians, say that the state is abandoning G-d. They claim a sort of “majority rules” approach, that since the majority of Minnesotans (or the country, for that matter) are Christian, everyone else can go to… well, wherever this type of Christian thinks the rest of us go… and the state or country should adopt Christian terms. Further, they seem to think that their covenant with G-d is the only divine covenant out there, so their view is the only one that counts.

As an aside, when I first started blogging, I posted an allegory I wrote on my view of what’s sometimes called dual or multiple covenant theology, or in Christianity it’s also sometimes referred to as the Theology of Recognition, and if you’d like, you can read it here.

So what do I think of all this?

I thought you’d never ask!

I think the intent is well-placed. I think the application is misguided.

I appreciate that state officials want to be inclusive, and I reject the “majority rules” approach. “Majority rules” is antithetical to mutual respect and tolerance, and if we are ever to have the sort of peace on Earth that most Christians claim to want, mutual respect and tolerance of all faiths is a must.

That said, I think that calling the governor’s tree a Holiday Tree cheats everyone. It demeans everyone’s holiday.

It demeans Christmas by diluting it with other holiday(s) that involve decorated trees.

It demeans Solstice by creating the impression that there’s nothing different between a Christmas tree and a Solstice tree, when in fact there are enormous differences.

And it demeans every other religion, including my own, by implying that every winter holiday somehow involves a decorated tree.

So now, this begs the question: if the governor’s tree should be called a Christmas tree, and even a religious Jew agrees with that, then what the heck is so wrong with wishing customers “Merry Christmas!” when they walk into a store?

It’s different. It’s very different.

If we decide to ignore Minnesota law and call the governor’s tree a Christmas tree, the fact remains that it’s not in my face. I don’t have to drive by it every day. It’s not in my living room. And I don’t personally feel that a Christmas tree in the governor’s yard is endorsing Christianity over any other religion.

But if I walk into Target to buy a box of diapers and a clerk wishes me a “Merry Christmas!” it is now in my face. I can do one of the following:

  1. Smile and say thank you, thus perpetuating the mistaken belief that everyone wants to be wished a merry Christmas
  2. Wish the clerk a Happy Chanukah in return, whether it is currently Chanukah or not (some may want to wish the clerk a Good Yule), regardless of what the clerk personally celebrates
  3. Say nothing and be considered rude
  4. Politely explain that I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I appreciate the sentiment and I wish the clerk a happy whatever-the-clerk-celebrates

There’s no good answer.

I mean, would you say “happy birthday!” to someone when it was your birthday but not theirs? Of course not.

Would you say “happy anniversary!” to a single friend (with no dating anniversary to celebrate)? Of course not.

Would you tell someone who was not sick to “get well soon”?

So, why would anyone want to wish a Jew, or anyone else who does not celebrate Christmas, a “merry Christmas”?

The truth is, we’re not going to have any sort of Christmas, merry or otherwise. Because it isn’t our holiday.

Whereas, if the clerk wishes me a “Happy Holidays,” I can accept that graciously and return the wish.

But some will argue it’s not about the recipient of the wish; it’s about the person making the wish. It’s part of their celebration of Christmas that they wish everyone around them – Christian or not, religious or not, a “merry Christmas.”

Doesn’t that fall under the rule of “your right to swing your fist ends at my nose”?

Celebrate Christmas all you want. But please, leave me out of that wish. Let me wish you a merry Christmas (which I will, if I feel my own beliefs are respected), but don’t wish one for me.

Okay, so this leads to one last segment in this topic, one that easily falls into the “in your face” category: religious Christmas cards.

I’ve debated this topic for several years now, and like those religious Christians who send out annual cards, I feel very strongly on this topic.

I won’t rehash the debate. It was long. Years ago, amidst a very fundamentalist Christian audience, it got ugly. Those who feel strongly are not likely to change their minds.

So here’s the bottom line. Some who send out religious cards feel like they’re sending a little piece of themselves to their friends and family. It really is a beautiful image. And it doesn’t matter what the recipient believes or celebrates, because it’s all about the sender sending something of herself out into the world.

I understand that. Truly, I do. I write books. I send little pieces of myself out into the world, too.

Others who send out cards think it’s about the recipient, not the sender. They reserve religious cards for their religious Christian friends, and send generic cards (or Chanukah or Solstice cards) to the appropriate recipients.

Here’s where I stand, and it’s pretty simple. I appreciate friends thinking of me. I really do. I’m touched when friends think enough of me to sign a card, especially if it’s personalized, address an envelope, affix a stamp, and send it to me.

At the exact same time, I am simply not comfortable with a card depicting a nativity scene, or a star over Bethlehem, or even a Christmas (not Holiday, not Solstice) tree buried in presents, displayed in my home.

I’m a religious Jew. I’m not interested in viewing the nativity every time I walk through the house.

So once again, I have a choice. I can:

  1. Display the card in the interests of friendship (though some would argue said friend might not be respecting my religious beliefs by sending said card) and feel uncomfortable in my own home
  2. Not display the card and not tell said friend about it (and hope she doesn’t come to visit)
  3. Send a quick telepathic “thanks!” for the sentiment of friendship and recycle the card
  4. Tell the friend that receiving religious Christmas cards makes me uncomfortable and run the risk that said friend will be offended that I have rejected that piece of her she sent to me

Again, not really any good answer.

Add to this the fact that there’s a Jewish perspective with which many – perhaps most – Christians are unfamiliar: it is almost impossible for a Jew to receive a religious Christmas card from a friend or family member without wondering, even a little bit, about the sender’s agenda. For many religious Jews, receiving a religious Christmas card often smacks of religious trimphalism. It carries with it a subtle message that we can be friends every other day of the year, but now it’s time to be reminded that Christians are “saved” and Jews are not (unless you subscribe to dual/multiple covenant theology).

It’s important to remember, when pondering the religious Christmas card to a Jew question, that Christianity and Judaism are mutually exclusive. You cannot be both within one person. (Don’t even get me started on “Jews for Jesus”… anyone who claims to believe in Jesus as a messiah is a Christian. Period.)

For a Christian to receive a Chanukah card, it is not contradictory to that Christian’s beliefs. Not exactly in line with them either, but not in direct opposition to them. There is nothing about Chanukah that denies Jesus.

But for a Jew to receive a religious Christmas card, it IS contradictory to that Jew’s beliefs. The birth of Jesus and the place of Jesus within Christianity is in direct opposition to religious Judaism, which acknowledges Jesus as a Jew, as a rabbi, as a storyteller and teacher – one among many in the first century of the Common Era – but NOT as Moshiach – as a messiah.

So where do we stand? Are we generic and inclusive, or specific and awkward?

I really believe that the politically correct pundits are looking for a blanket inclusivity to apply to everything religious. Just replace “Christmas” with “Holiday” and everyone will be happy, right?

No. I don’t agree. Blanket solutions rarely work.

What I believe we need to do is take a step back and ask ourselves what our intentions are.

How can we celebrate our own holidays with meaning and personal fulfillment without our “fist” connecting with someone else’s “nose”? How can we respect and honor each others’ holidays without demeaning, diluting, or betraying our own? How can we take others’ beliefs and feelings into consideration as we enter into a time that is supposed to be known for its joy and light?

What can YOU do this month to bring joy and light into the world, while acknowledging, honoring, and respecting (but not necessarily celebrating) religious beliefs and holidays that are not your own?


  1. james

    brilliant SOUTH PARK episode (rerun, certainly) on this very subject tonight: offended folk of every religion by nativity scenes, et al.

    kyle’s request for Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo as the new icon of the holiday season is quashed!

    can’t we all just get along? (rodney king)

    hilarious Mr. Garrison line “Can we get rid of the Mexicans?”

    THAT’S what Christmas is all about.

    or Chanukah. or Kwanzaa. etc.

  2. Anonymous

    From a devout Christian who rarely says, “Merry Christmas”, doesn’t put up a tree and is too lazy to send out cards… [Though I’d love to receive a Chanukah card.]

    I enjoyed reading your post and I look forward to reading more about dual/multiple covenant theology.


  3. Sheyna

    I was just asked to define “dual/multiple covenant theology” and the “Theology of Recognition,” beyond the allegory I wrote and posted earlier.

    The simplest explanation is that there is more than one covenant with G-d in the world. The covenant between G-d and the Jews, created with the giving of the Torah at Sinai and written about in the book of Exodus (Sh’mot), still stands and was neither superceded nor replaced by a separate covenant between G-d and Christians, created through Jesus.

    For a more complete explanation, especially as it pertains to Jewish-Christian relations, please see this link:


  4. Sheyna

    For those who may be wondering, the reference in my blog to the ‘your right to swing your fist’ rule is from a quotation by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and actually says, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

    Just for the record, this is not a reference to actual physical violence, but to being aware and respectful of how our words and actions affect those around us.

    Which was exactly my point.

  5. Dejah


    As I’ve said before, I like you, but I don’t agree. First of all, you are mixing topics that are not one and the same. American government is not supposed to establish one religion over another. The “Holiday” tree is wussy bull crapola. They want to have a Christmas tree because they always have had one, but they can’t favor one religion over another, so they have to dumb it down… as if they’re fooling anyone.

    However, no one else is limited by the separation of church and state–not Walmart, not the clerk, and not your friends sending Christmas cards. It was never the intention of the framers of our constitution to banish religion from all public expression. People are still allowed to express themselves short of screaming fire and a crowded theater.

    You don’t have to have a Merry Christmas if you don’t want to, but your right to regulate what other people say, stops at your ears. Of course you might like if no one expressed enjoyment of their religious holidays, but that’s not the way it is. You get to enjoy Jewish holidays and wish any and all you meet to have happy ones. The pagans get to enjoy Solstice ane be happy and wish any and all to be happy. And yes, even the Christians gets to enjoy Christmas and wish any and all a Merry Christmas. You cannot reduce the freedom of the majority to practice their religion without reducing your freedom to practice your religion. That is what you’re trying to do, you realize.

    It is a gross exaggeration to liken saying “Merry Christmas” to hitting someone. Do you intend a hit when you say Happy Chanukah? Of course not! You are sharing your joy, or maybe, just being pleasantly polite during a happy season. You may take “Merry Christmas” as an insult, but that’s not the problem of the person who says it! That’s your problem. You choose to get offended by a remark which is not intended as anything more than a seasonal pleasantry.

    As for how to respond, is it never impolite to say “I hope you have a Merry Christmas.”

  6. Anonymous

    VERY well stated, Sheyna.

    I am a Christian, and I do NOT celebrate Christmass. My reasons are not the same as yours, but I am just as offended when wished a merry one.

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