In fifth grade, I was the only Jewish kid in my elementary school class. This was the 1980’s in Central Florida and even though it was a public school, unaffiliated with any church and funded with taxpayer dollars, my teacher taped a poster to the wall in her classroom that read, “Jesus Is The Reason For The Season.”
I wasn’t offended per se. I’m pretty sure at ten, I didn’t know what that word meant. But I could tell the teacher was sending a message to anyone in her class who might have different beliefs — such as, say, that the tilt of the earth on its axis is the reason for the seasons.
Around Christmastime, my family celebrated Hanukkah, and though I didn’t expect to see any menorahs and dreidels on display, I started to resent the inescapable morass of a celebration that clearly wasn’t meant for me.
The Christmas specials on TV said Santa visited “all the children in the world.” The good ones got gifts. The naughty ones got lumps of coal. The Jewish ones got told Santa wasn’t coming to their house.
Why? Because, as every disillusioned Jewish kid learns, it was the parents, not Santa putting gifts under the trees. “No big whoop.” we’d hear from our own parents. “But don’t tell your friends that Santa isn’t real because we don’t want to spoil the holidays for the gentiles’ kids. Just keep the lie going, okay?”
Okay, I guess. But isn’t the 9th Commandment something about bearing false witness?
Whatever, pass a latke.
Along with the life-sized nativity scenes on residential lawns, the occasional giant wooden crosses outside particularly zealous households, and the incessant Christmas music blasting on repeat in every shopping mall and public space — it could all be a bit much.
At some point, I started to bristle when anyone would do so much as wish me a “Merry Christmas.” Didn’t they consider whether I even celebrated the holiday? 69 percent of the world is not Christian, after all. Why couldn’t they at least say something more generic, like “Happy Holidays?”
Hearing “Merry Christmas” started to give me the same feelings that the poster in the fifth grade had.
I held onto that resentment for decades and often seared inside. Why couldn’t people be more sensitive and inclusionary? I didn’t ask for this. If only they’d stop oppressing me with their beautiful holiday of good cheer and goodwill!
If I was feeling particularly passive-aggressive, I’d return a “Merry Christmas” with “and a Happy Hanukkah to you too!” That didn’t win me any friends. Wishing a caucasian person, “Happy Kwanza!,” made things even worse.
Benefit of the Doubt
Recently, however, I’ve changed my mind about “Merry Christmas.” I no longer see it as insensitive, and I don’t mind when people say it. I certainly don’t rally for people to change their ways.
My softening to this tradition started when I began seeking to understand people’s intentions, rather than interpreting their actions. I repeat a mantra whenever I find myself assuming intent that may not actually be there: “kindness is measured by the benefit of the doubt.”
A stranger wishing me a “Merry Christmas,” is not an attempt to convert me to their religion. It’s their sincere, heartfelt way of saying, “I hope you have joy and love in your life.” At least, I can choose to believe that’s their intent and give them the benefit of the doubt.
Unless We’re Friends
That being said, that’s how I feel about strangers saying “Merry Christmas.” If you and I are friends, after a while, I’d expect you to know I don’t celebrate Christmas. At that point, saying “Merry Christmas” is kind of obnoxious.
If you can’t understand why anyone would ever mind hearing “Merry Christmas,” even if they don’t celebrate the holiday, it’s probably because you only associate it with good things. It’s all candy canes and presents to you, but it isn’t for everyone.
Think of it this way: Imagine you’re not a Yankees fan and while visiting New York, someone you just met says “Go Yankees!” They assumed you’re a fan of the same team they are. It’s a little irksome but you’re in New York so you roll with it. It’s just baseball and many people in New York are Yankees fans, no biggie.
But what if every time you met up with a good friend, someone who should know better, they forget you’re not a Yankees fan? In fact, they don’t bother to remember or care. What if every time they saw you, they assumed you loved the Yankees. They love the Yankees. All their friends love the Yankees. So they just guessed you love the Yankees.
Oh!? You don’t? Well, whose problem is that? What are you getting so worked up about, anyway? And oh yeah, Go Yankees!
You see the point. No hard feelings intended, but good friends could try a bit harder. Don’t take your vegetarian friend to dinner at a steak restaurant. If you want to send your five-years-sober buddy a gift, find a better one than a bottle of wine. All it takes is being a bit more observant to make someone else feel comfortable — it’s the very definition of good manners.
And on the receiving end, it’s also alright to let things slide during this time of the year. If a friend slips up, we can give them the benefit of the doubt.
Everyone has burped at the dinner table; it happens. It’s up to us not to take offense when none is intended. Better to write-off slip-ups as such rather than thinking they’re intentional jabs meant to exclude. For the most part, people just want to feel closer to others during the holidays, no matter what God (if any) they pray to.
Saying “Merry Christmas” or any other holiday greeting, is a habit for some, an obligation for others, and for most people a simple act of kindness and common humanity. Most people give it little thought and think it’s no big deal. They’re right, and we (myself included) shouldn’t make it into one.
By assuming positive intent and trying our best to make others feel welcomed, we’re all more likely to have happier times together ahead, no matter what holiday we do or don’t celebrate.
Nir Eyal is a former Lecturer at Stanford and is the bestselling author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Indistractable won numerous honors and was named one of the Best Books of the Year by Amazon.