“Happy holidays! It’s such a busy time of the year, you must not be able to get anything done!”
For a moment, I panic. Did I forget something? I actually have been getting a lot done these days. What am I forgetting or neglecting?
And then I remember: there are holidays coming up, but thankfully, they are not mine.
I went through my holiday season in the fall, when I spent every single week for an entire month planning and cooking for festive meal after festive meal. All told, we clocked in at about a dozen Thanksgiving-style meals that month with so much eating that even my kids moaned “more food?”
Even the holiday where I feel like I should get a break from cooking — Yom Kippur, a fast day known as the Day of Atonement — is buttressed by meals. There’s the one at the start of the fast that helps tide over those fasting for 25 hours, and then the one after, the “break fast” needed to replenish empty bellies after a long day of prayer and fasting.
By the end of the month, most Orthodox Jews (like my family) are ready to move on and get back to regular life.
Which is part of what makes me resent the Christmas-ification of Hanukkah, a minor Jewish festival that happens to coincide with the major Christian holiday season. When I hear that amorphous greeting of “Happy holidays!” for a generalized and nonsectarian holiday season, I think to myself, “Don’t rope me into this! I paid my dues and survived my holiday season! Don’t put another on my plate!”
While other Jewish holidays come with a lot of requirements, restrictions and accouterments, Hanukkah is, by comparison, blessedly easy. On Passover we combine spring cleaning on steroids and cooking with extremely limited and expensive ingredients for a full week.
On Sukkot — the Feast of the Tabernacles, as it is known to Christians — we build booths in our backyard as we prepare for the holiday’s marathon of cooking and eating, in addition to acquiring special species of branches and an absurdly expensive citrus (called an etrog) that resembles a lemon. I’m not making this up.
In comparison, for Hanukkah, all we have to do is light the menorah and say a blessing. Throw in some spinning of the dreidels, fry up some latkes and doughnuts, and you can call it a day. It’s an easy one, and yet because of its proximity to Christmas, the expectation of its celebration has been elevated by American Jewry into something far more complex than it was ever meant to be.
Maybe I’m a Grinch; you can certainly call me one. Who doesn’t want more holidays, more joy, more reasons to celebrate?
But here’s the thing: the history of Hanukkah, which long predates the birthday of Christ, is a story about the Jewish rejection of assimilation into the popular culture of the day. Perhaps this holiday’s placement in the secular calendar and how it overlaps with Christmas most years is no mere accident of fate, but a reminder from God to the Jewish people: their culture is not your culture. Their holidays are not yours.
It has become commonplace to replace the greeting “Merry Christmas” with “Happy holidays!” in order not to offend those who aren’t celebrating the former. But the latter greeting assumes that we are celebrating a more generalized holiday season. Such an assumption would make sense in the spring; Passover and Easter always coincide and are major holidays for both faiths.
But in the winter, conflating Christmas and Hanukkah is like comparing apples to oranges. They are very different animals, and pretending they are even remotely the same reveals ignorance about the significance of Hanukkah.
Still, every year, I see complaints from Jews and secular Christians alike about paltry Hanukkah decorations alongside elaborate Christmas displays. But we Jews are not a “decorations” people. And we shouldn’t begrudge people the full, open and proud celebration of their holiday.
Every year in the fall, people outside of my faith, from grocery store clerks to politicians, excitedly wish those of us of the Jewish faith a “Shanah tovah” (a happy new year) to show that they’ve taken the time and care to share an appropriate greeting. It sends a message that they care about being inclusive.
That inclusiveness should go both ways. Those of us who don’t see Christmas as a religious event should extend that courtesy and respect, and freely use “Merry Christmas!” as a greeting regardless of our beliefs and practices. That’s what inclusion and respect looks like — not “happy holidays.”
Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News. She is a home-schooling mother of five and a widely published writer on politics, culture and Judaism. She is an editor for the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty.”