Virtual Talmud

I was hurrying through Reagan National Airport on the way to the United Synagogue convention last week when I passed an enormous Christmas tree on the lower concourse. I appreciated the beautiful decorations and automatically looked around to see if a menorah was also on display. There was not one in sight.

We have made some progress, though. “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” messages now fill the airways and even a few chain stores. The Christmas trees and glitter are still there, but at least there is an effort to show sensitivity and courtesy to those who of us who hold different beliefs.

As Jews, we are particularly aware of the importance of such sentiments, because our holiday, Hanukkah, usually falls around this time of year. However, my neighbors who are Hindu (and celebrate a different winter festival of light) similarly prefer a “Happy Holiday” to the exclusive Merry Christmas. At the very least, the secular New Year is around the corner, so everyone, technically at least, can feel part of a “Happy Holiday” greeting, regardless of religious affiliation or inclination.

That is why recent calls for a boycott against stores who have replaced their Merry Christmas signs with Happy Holiday signs strikes me as mean-spirited. These moves have been labeled as an “attack on Christmas.” Exactly who is attacking whom?

People become angry when they feel that their “rights” have been violated, often when what they were used to has changed. Our American culture is changing, as we begin to publicly acknowledge our diversity, and rightfully so. This is not a cultural minimalist position, just the opposite: When each religion and ethnicity deeply lives its own traditions, the mosaic of American society is enriched. The freedom to be different is a right constitutionally guaranteed by the separation of church and state and the disestablishment of religion. That calls for a little appreciation for and consideration of others, as well as making room in our public culture for those differences.

It is unfortunate that those who launched this “attack on Christmas” boycott feel their holiday cheer diminished by a simple Happy Holiday sign. However, that doesn’t give them the “right” to be totally inconsiderate of others who do not share their beliefs. Perhaps some self-proclaimed rights are really wrongs, which is why a just society must at times protect the rights of the minority from the demands of the majority.

Last I looked, Christmas is alive, well, and … everywhere. The real attack is not on Christmas by the Happy Holidayers, but on courtesy and kindness by the anti-Happy Holiday crowd.

“Love thy neighbor as thyself” is a cardinal virtue of both Judaism and Christianity, part of the Scripture we both share. That means showing the same courtesy to others that you would want for yourself.

That means when I know someone celebrates Christmas, I wish that person a Merry Christmas. However, when in doubt, or when greeting an ethnically or religiously mixed group, a Happy Holiday instead of a Merry Christmas becomes a basic act of kindness, a way of showing consideration and courtesy to others.

My minister friends tell me Christmas is supposed to be about showing kindness and generosity of spirit to others, not about whether a store sports a “Merry Christmas” or a “Happy Hanukkah” sign. That’s why my family will be making a special effort this year to shop at Target and the other stores being boycotted by the “attack on Christmas” crowd. On our way out, I’ll be sure to let the store managers know just how much I appreciate their “Happy Holiday” signs.

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