Merry Christmas! The exuberant greeting of the season used to bring me such joy — both to give and to receive.
But I almost never hear it — or utter it — anymore. The fear of offending a non-Christian has taken this pleasure from the season. I have become PC on the issue, I’m afraid.
I believe I am pretty strong in my faith (I never write Christmas with an X) but I would never deliberately belittle anyone else’s by wishing someone I knew to be of another faith a merry Christmas. After all, Jesus is the reason for the season, and to force my belief in him on someone who believes he was a great man, but not the Messiah, would be tacky and insensitive.
Sadly, holiday greetings have inspired violence this season. Almost two weeks ago, three Jewish subway riders on New York’s Q train were attacked by a rowdy group of 10 after Walter Adler responded to a wish of “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Hanukkah.” And who came to their rescue? Hassan Askari, a Muslim student from Bangladesh.
Unbelievable. To quote Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along?”
How do non-Christians react to greeting?
Adler handled the Christmas greeting in a perfectly acceptable way by responding with his religion’s greeting of the season. How do other non-Christians feel when they’re wished a merry Christmas?
It depends whom you ask.
Marcia Zimmerman, senior rabbi of Temple Israel in Minneapolis said, “You feel clearly part of the minority population at this time of the year. It’s a very important time for Christians, and I find beauty in the tradition.” But how she feels when people wish her a merry Christmas depends on where she is at the time, Zimmerman said. “If I’m in a church as a visitor, OK, but if I’m in a grocery store or department store, there’s an assumption there that we are all of one religion. We are of many traditions.”
“My fellow Jews may or may not agree with me, but this is a huge, huge meaningful holiday for the majority,” said Gail Rosenblum of Minneapolis, a former colleague of mine at the Star Tribune. “There is no meanness when someone says ‘Merry Christmas.’ It’s an assumption (that I’m Christian). I just say ‘Thank you. Have a happy holiday.’ “
Rosenblum says she also doesn’t mind receiving Christmas cards. “I have a love for the season.” She’s come by that honestly. Her father’s love for Christmas carols saved his life during World War II. Stationed onboard the troop carrier Leopoldville on Christmas Eve 1944, headed for the Battle of the Bulge, 19-year-old Sidney Rosenblum joined about 200 other soldiers on deck singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
A few minutes later, a little past 6 p.m., the bottom stern section of the ship was hit by a German torpedo, killing hundreds. If not for the lure of the Christmas music, Sidney Rosenblum would have been below deck, probably among the dead.
Christmas carols saved his life
But beyond that amazing story, Rosenblum says she is secure enough in her faith that she doesn’t get caught up in all the political correctness of Christmas greetings, adding, “I feel sorry for my Christian friends who get bogged down in saying, “Happy holidays,’ and calling parties holiday parties. They’re Christmas parties. I can enjoy it without owning it.”
I also worked with Mike Meyers, a Minneapolis atheist, who says he’s unaffected by wishes of a merry Christmas. “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s become a secular holiday. It hasn’t mattered to me since I wanted a red bike under the tree.”
“It doesn’t bug me because we celebrate Christmas, just not the Jesus part,” said Nicole Bue, an 18-year-old senior at Brooklyn Center High School whose grandfather is a Buddhist shaman. “My family doesn’t have an official religion…we kind of observe our grandfather’s beliefs out of respect, but my dad said it’s up to us to decide” what religion to embrace.
Is Shruti Mathur, a Hindu from Wilmington, Del., bothered by being wished a merry Christmas? “It probably depends on my mood that day,” she jokes.
Mathur, who grew up in Minnesota and worked at the Star Tribune, said her family celebrated the secular side of Christmas, with a decorated tree and gift-giving, but Christmas greetings do bother her in the sense that “it brings that sense of ‘otherness.’ You’re just trying to make your place in the world, and someone else’s opinion means more. But you balance it like everything else. There’s no need to berate a drugstore clerk for saying, ‘Merry Christmas.’ Just wish it back.”