Mom was baptized in a neighborhood Catholic church, had 16 years of Catholic education and served three terms on the board of a Jesuit college. Dad, born nine years after the Holocaust, is Jewish, had a bar mitzvah and was confirmed. Daughter is in the middle of her third year of rabbinical school and has her own Reform congregation in Marion, Ohio.
That’s why, each December, in the service of peace on Earth and goodwill to humankind, we say “Happy Holidays.” Or “Season’s Greetings.”
Don’t get us wrong. We recognize that nine out of 10 Americans celebrate Christmas and, moreover, that four-fifths of non-Christians do, too — along with 85 percent of Americans who have no religion at all, according to a Pew Research Center survey out last week. On Dec. 25, we say “Merry Christmas,” because Dec. 25 indisputably is Christmas Day. And from Dec. 12 to Dec. 20 we say “Happy Hanukkah,” because for our family, that’s most relevant.
You might imagine how the effort to drive the phrase “Happy Holidays” out of the American lexicon leaves us feeling uneasy. We acknowledge that our mixed family may seem unusual, but in truth there is a good deal of the American heritage and American culture in it — diversity, tolerance, a little bit of piety, a lot of respect and a good sense of humor. Especially that last element.
We’ve found that having a family of differences has produced a family of unity and strength. Dad has a friendship with the bishop that his late mother would likely find incomprehensible. Mom goes to synagogue events alone when Dad’s not around or more interested in the Pirates game. The rabbi daughter last summer directed a camp that was focused on interfaith engagement and that met, on alternative days, at a synagogue, church and mosque.
We don’t just live in America. We are America. We say “Happy Holidays” because our holidays are happy.
Mom’s view: I believe you should have yourself a merry little Christmas, as the song says, if it reflects your beliefs and customs. If your family is Polish, Catholic and traditional about such customs, as mine was in my childhood, we said “Merry Christmas” to everyone because we didn’t know any Jews or Muslims. Our use of “Happy Holidays” was a tag line on a Christmas card, a way to offer good wishes for the new year.
I became much more sensitive to the offhand “Merry Christmas,” the tree and the trimmings when I married a Jewish person. We tried to go many extra miles to respect each other’s religions, and we did, deeply. I could see how Christmas carols might offend you if you weren’t Christian, but I could also see that fighting to exclude this part of the holiday was disrespectful because the songs are part of the season, even if played to distraction.
Adding Hanukkah was a joy. I love the lit candles piercing the nights’ darkness, just as I can look at a Christmas tree and see light at dark times.
Our own parents and others have left us, and together these seasonal symbols remind us of them and how they were faithful to their customs and their faiths.
So my advice is simple: Be respectful and aware that not everyone is having a merry little Christmas.
Daughter’s view: The miracle of Hanukkah, which occurs just as the light of days is diminishing, is simple: the rededication of the temple and the preservation of light. It brings people together around a source of light while urging Jews to acknowledge their families as a source of education and light.
Christmas is my mom’s holiday, and I respect that because I am grateful for the way she respects and supports my religious choice. When we gather at this season, we bring together members of her family, whom I see only once a year, and I always smile to see the difference in our traditions and the acceptance and love we have for each other and for our different faiths. And with Hanukkah, I eat foods that I only indulge in once a year — latkes with applesauce and sour cream and doughnuts.
Sometimes I think that the way out of this question is simply to say, “Happy 25th Day,” given that Christmas comes on Dec. 25 and Hanukkah comes on the 25th day of Kislev, according to the Hebrew calendar.
There’s a phrase I often hear when people are struggling with how to celebrate Hanukkah in a Christian-centered country: the December Dilemma. Instead, I prefer to speak of the December Balance, emphasizing a balance of acceptance and joy coming from a family marking two holidays of light and love — and the comfort that comes from each of us finding our own light in our own holiday.
Dad’s view: I’m proud to be part of this country, and to be part of this family. As Dickens’ Tiny Tim would have said: “God bless them, every one.” And all of you, too. Happy holidays.