I plan to spend a fair amount of time this year wishing people a merry Christmas. “Happy holidays” seems especially empty this year, as Chanukah is already over weeks before Christmas. I love Chanukah, and I love Chanukah even more when it occurs around Thanksgiving rather than Christmas. Thanksgiving celebrates freedom and American community. George Washington’s original Thanksgiving declaration (www.earlyamerica.com/ earlyamerica/firsts/thanksgiving/thankstext.html for the full text) has a lot in common with the special rabbinic prayer for Chanukah.
Washington says, in part, to let us “unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks, for His kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of His providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union and plenty, which we have since enjoyed … and for the various favors He has bestowed upon us.”
During Chanukah we similarly praise God for “the miraculous deliverance, for the heroism, and for the triumphs in battle of our ancestors in other days and in our time.”
Both Thanksgiving and Chanukah focus us on our connection to others (whether other Jews or other Americans) and our appreciation for the blessings we have in our lives. Both holidays are based on the biblical festival of Sukkot, and suggest a hopeful orientation to the world. Light can be found in darkness, the harvest will carry us through the winter. Finally, both celebrate religious groups finding places in which they can commit themselves deeply to their own specific practices.
Christmas, by contrast, is a wonderful holiday celebrating a deeply moving story for another faith tradition. It has a few surface similarities to Chanukah. That Chanukah falls on the 25th of Kislev and Christmas on the 25th of December must be more than coincidence. Both are winter holidays that bring light rituals into the darkest of days. Yet in most other ways, they are two very different and distinct holidays.
Christmas is a big deal for Christians. When Christmas and Chanukah occur in closer proximity, we tend to build up Chanukah to “compete” with Christmas.
Christmas is integrally a gift giving holiday. Gift giving on Chanukah is a post World War II American practice.
Further, like Passover or Yom Kippur, Christmas is one of the key celebrations and stories that define Christianity. Chanukah, by contrast, is a minor holiday. I like it a lot, but it can never compete with Christmas.
In our discomfort as our neighbors celebrate Christmas, we have tried to create a more generic holiday season. Much of the great Christmas music was written by Irving Berlin (if only he had written “I’m Dreaming of Wisse Chanukah”), George Gershwin, and other Jews seeking to create a safe secular space around Christmas as an American holiday. That flawed endeavor denuded Christmas of some of its meaning, but it remains a deeply significant Christian day. As well it should.
I remember when I was growing up that Christmas left me feeling left out. I disliked all the Christmas music and decorations. I take it as a sign of maturity, and a comfort in my own Judaism, that I now see and appreciate the deep meaning of this day, and the beauty of its practices.
My wife is a convert to Judaism. My sister has married a wonderful husband who isn’t Jewish. As a result, I have Christian family now that we visit from time to time on Christmas, because the day has meaning for them.
Just as they are welcome in our home for Shabbat or for a Passover meal, we too accept their hospitality on a day on which they both celebrate and gather. I can visit them, appreciate their celebration, without comprising anything of what it means to be Jewish.
So this year I am not going to say “happy holidays.” People are only now beginning to wish me a happy holiday, and Chanukah is already over and done. I prefer to say what I really mean. I want Christians to have a Christmas filled with joy and meaning and light. And so I intend to wish them a merry Christmas.
Rabbi David Booth is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at RabbiBooth@kolemeth.org.