“Happy Holidays” divides us more than it unites us

By Ethan Stanislawski

There is no day of the year when I am more of a sadist than on Christmas Day. It’s too easy; all I have to do is say “Merry Christmas” to friends who know I’m Jewish, and, like clockwork, they will squirm and eventually come out with a “Happy Holidays.” Sometimes I’ll actively seek out Gentiles just to work this holiday magic.

I don’t bear any ill will toward Christians or Christmas. In fact, I kind of like to see families convene at the end of the year and come together despite all their problems. But what bothers me about Christmas is the guilt that goes with celebrating Christmas today. The “Happy Holidays” revolution represents a failure of political correctness—in exposing the fact that not all Americans celebrate Christmas, we’ve actually created more of a division in our society than we’ve remedied by increasing our awareness. In high school, one of my friends, a completely secular half-Jew, wore a Santa hat to school. She was stopped no fewer than three times and asked, “But aren’t you Jewish?”

This lapse doesn’t mean, like so many like to claim now, that political correctness is without any merits. If a group in our country is continually disenfranchised and excluded from the privileges of the rest of society, we should by all means expose that problem. But changing “Christmas” into “Holidays” solves none of the problems associated with the Christian connection to the largest American holiday. Desperately hyping other holidays which happen to fall in December is an obvious attempt to hide how much Christmas dominates this time of year, and no one is really fooled.

In this sense, I consider it more offensive to popularly celebrate Hanukkah. While Hanukkah is a relatively minor Jewish festival, virtually everyone in the country is aware of it. But how many of those people do you think have heard of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year? Outside of a few metropolitan areas, that number shrinks dramatically. Are we really being egalitarian if we rank the importance of holidays of other religions by their proximity to Christmas?

The problem with arguing this case, which has caused me and countless other cynical Jews to tone down their rhetoric, is that reactionary conservatives argue along the same line. Bill O’Reilly’s “War on Christmas” is the most famous of these, but countless other far-right pundits have lashed out against the “Happy Holidays” phenomenon in syndicated columns, radio talk shows, and blogs. Are pragmatic Jews and right-wing Christian nationalists really united on this issue?

O’Reilly and friends are right, for once, but for the wrong reasons. They treat Christmas like it’s a longstanding religious and national tradition, when in fact, even up until the Civil War, most Protestant churches were closed on Christmas. Those churches hated Christmas and considered it a pagan holiday.

The history of America’s fascination with Christmas, Santa, and gift-giving is convoluted and controversial, and it’s not worth explaining it here. Nonetheless, the traditional complaints about Christmas—materialism, coveting thy neighbor’s goods, and a lack of sincerity—have existed since long before we started saying “Happy Holidays” (a quick listen to Tom Lehrer’s 1954 classic “A Christmas Carol” should dispel this myth). If anything, Christmas is getting more religiously focused.

But up until about 30 years ago, just about everyone was complacent about “Merry Christmas.” A couple of adolescent Jewish boys might have been jealous of their best friend’s Christmas tree, and some elderly Jews would kvetch about seeing so many Christmas ads on TV. But does that really constitute discrimination? Especially when it involves such a relatively recent cultural force?

Political correctness has served America well in a lot of ways, and gets vehemently attacked far too often by critics from both the left and the right. In this case, however, we’ve seen a lazy application of political correctness, and it deserves to be criticized and debated. Hopefully, we can find people less stupid than Bill O’Reilly to discuss this phenomenon.