In what has become my own little holiday tradition, I've been monitoring -- slightly bemused, as always -- the annual December pageant that pits the "Happy Holidays" hoi polloi against the "Merry Christmas" crowd, the PC multiculturalists against the JC fundamentalists, the Don't Shove Your Observance Down our Throat hordes against the Let's Put the Christ Back in Christmas crusaders. The essays and articles and letters to the editor. The inevitable hue and cry and self-righteous indignation on talk radio. The struggles, visible on the faces of so many retail workers, to say just the right thing.
I just enjoy the action and the diversion despite my indifference to the outcome. Because for me, the outcome was decided long ago.
In many ways, both sides have, beneath the hype and hysteria, valid points to make. As a Christian who's celebrated Christmas his whole life, I'm fond of "Merry Christmas" and think it worth preserving, even if some hyper-sensitive people might think I'm trying to exclude their faith (or lack of faith) by honoring and offering mine.
As a guy who's had many Jewish friends, I also quite like "Happy Hanukkah," in the same way I like saying, "Hello, Sam" a whole lot better than I like saying, "Hello, sir" when I see Sam. Because I suspect that Sam appreciates being greeted as an individual, not as a generic concept. Just as I suspect he is as fond of "Happy Hanukkah" as I am of "Merry Christmas."
As a Christian with Jewish friends who recognizes there are many December (and January) holidays besides mine (and besides Sam's), I don't believe that to acknowledge this fact somehow sells out my savior or snuffs out Sam's menorah. So I happen to like "Happy Holidays," too. "Happy New Year." "Happy Kwanzaa." "Happy Festivus." Heck, I like 'em all.
The more love and cheer and good wishes we spread, the more we give of ourselves and to each other, the better, right? Of course.
Thanks to my parents and grandparents, to mentors both secular and spiritual, this I have always known. But I relearned the lesson -- and so acquired my indifference to this whole foolish holiday greeting debate -- one December Saturday in seventh grade, when I slept over at a friend's house. That friend, Lou, was Jewish, and that Saturday was smack in the middle of Hanukkah. I knew a lot about the holiday and its traditions; two of my best friends were Jewish, and we often talked about our traditions (and, of course, our presents) in the way that only children who have not yet learned how to be offended by cultural differences can.
I'd never been to Lou's house during his Hanukkah celebration. I felt awkward at first, almost like an interloper, like someone who, if not infringing, was at least spying on a family's private spiritual moments. But it took only a few minutes for Lou and his parents to make me feel a part of those moments, of their holiday, even of their family.
They explained the traditions of their faith and of their family. They had a small present -- I don't remember what it was; the gesture was far more resonant than the item -- for me to open when Lou opened his. We played the dreidel game. We shared some matzo. They taught me a few words in Hebrew just before they said their prayers. And then they lit the menorah.
I can still see the peace, the pride, the love on their faces, their eyes and smiles aglow in the light of the candles. They kissed and hugged and wished each other Happy Hanukkah. And then, almost as one, the three of them turned to me, that same love and kindness still alight on their faces, and said, "Happy Hanukkah, Chad."
I was surprised, of course. And I suppose I could have been shocked or vexed or even morally, mortally offended to the depths of my poor impugned Christianity. But far from being insulted or alienated by their words, I felt included, accepted, connected. I felt myself a small part of their family, their faith and their fellowship.
And in those extraordinary moments, the whole stupid they-say, we-say, say-what? issue became for me moot and hopelessly beside the point. Because the point, as Lou and his parents showed that awkward, appreciative little Lutheran kid in their kitchen, is that the joys and blessings and wishes and lovely, graceful humanity of holidays and the people who celebrate them are not and never should be divided by the boundaries of religions, sects, denominations, nationalities, political parties or rhetorical strategies.
You don't have to be a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew or any particular race, creed, color, tint or hue to offer and receive the blessings of this or any other season. You just have to be open to -- and accepting of -- all the infinite possibilities of human faith and hope and love.
And that, I like to think, is something we can all, come Christmas or Hanukkah or any other day of the year, wish freely and happily for each other.