"I am a Jewish woman living in a predominantly Christian and Muslim part of Florida. I am tired of people wishing me a Merry Christmas. My usual response to people I don't know well is, "Yeah, you too." If it's someone I see often -- like my hair stylist -- I usually tell them around November that our family is Jewish and we are looking forward to celebrating Hanukkah. How should Jews respond to "Merry Christmas" greetings?"
Thank you for your question. It is a question, I think, that almost every North American Jew has asked of themselves at some point: How do I respond when someone wishes me a "Merry Christmas"?
Like you, I live in a part of the world where Jews are a small minority. To make matters worse, I have two young children, so I also have to deal with well-meaning strangers who ask my kids, "What is Santa bringing you for Christmas?" You can imagine the strange looks when I have to explain, politely, that our children do not celebrate Christmas and Santa does not visit our house.
My advice is to be polite, but persistent, in telling people that you do not celebrate Christmas. When Jews and other non-Christians acquiesce to "Merry Christmas" greetings with responses like, "You, too," or just nervous smiles, we only perpetuate the idea that Christmas is for everyone.
I am always amazed when people who know full well that I am Jewish ask me and my children questions like, "How does your family celebrate Christmas?", "Do you have a tree?" and "Don't you give presents on Christmas day?" It is not that people intend to dismiss the integrity of Judaism as a distinct religion, they just have internalized the assumption that, in America, everyone celebrates Christmas.
What do you say when well-wishers wish you a "merry Christmas"? My answer is, "Thank you, but I don't celebrate Christmas. Let me wish you the best on your holiday." It's worth taking the time to get the point across.
What about Hanukkah? I avoid saying, "We celebrate Hanukkah," as a response to Christmas greetings. Even more than I want to tell people that Christmas is not for everyone, I want to insist that Hanukkah is not the "Jewish Christmas."
Hanukkah is a minor holiday. It is a time for Jewish families to spend a little extra time together on the darkest evenings of the year, to watch candles flicker, and to consider the presence of miracles in our lives. Hanukkah is best when it is kept small. It may sound strange to hear a rabbi say it, but I don't really want strangers to wish me a "happy Hanukkah," either -- especially if they think that it's just the way to wish a Jew a merry Christmas!
I hope that this is helpful.
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser
Congregation Beth Israel