Note: This article by my friend Rabbi Jonathan Miller appeared recently in The Birmingham News, and I am reproducing it here by his permission.
It sure wouldn’t be Christmas without the trees strapped to the tops of SUVs. It sure wouldn’t be Christmas without crowded parking lots and lines at the cash register. It sure wouldn’t be Christmas without a month of the same music year after year wafting its way down the aisles of the SuperCenter or the shopping mall or the grocery store. And it sure wouldn’t be Christmas without the specter of some kind of Grinch who is out to spoil the holiday fun.
As a rabbi, I don’t celebrate Christmas. Christmas celebrates the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus, the Messiah of all the earth. Jews don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah of all the earth, and neither do Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus or Atheists nor any of the other people in our country who are not Christians. Even the Eastern Orthodox Church, a large part of the Christian world, does not celebrate Christmas on December 25. So Christmas, although it is ubiquitous here in America, is not universally observed.
That doesn’t mean I don’t like Christmas. I do, really. I like the lights, the food, and the return of hope and promise that permeates our society. I enjoy listening to some of the less campy Christmas music. I even smile as I find myself humming Christmas melodies. Even as I watch from the sidelines as everyone scurries around to get everything in place for their perfect Christmas day, most people have good cheer and hopeful spirits, and they share that with everyone. And I like that, I really do.
But this year, I have turned on the television and the radio and read about Christmas in the newspapers, and I have learned that suddenly I, because I don’t celebrate Christmas have become this year’s Grinch. I don’t like being the Grinch. I really don’t.
It seems that some of the more mean spirited people in our society are picking on people who don’t celebrate Christmas. After all, what is Christmas without a Grinch? These Grinch hunters take great offense at the people in the stores who tell their customers to have a happy holiday without specifically mentioning Christmas. They feel as though we non-Christmas celebrators are removing the baby Jesus from our society. But we haven’t done anything new. Last year we non-Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas. And next year, no matter how much hollering there is, I don’t suspect that we will be celebrating Christmas even then.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t like Christmas. It means that we don’t celebrate Christmas. The non-Christians I know are rooting for Christmas. Deck your halls, by all means. Put up your lights and your mistletoe, enjoy your hats and stuff your stockings, be generous to the people you love and to the poor among us. Open your hearts to the joy and the hope that your belief brings you, and let some of that joy and hope permeate your lives all year long. What a blessing you will be as good Christians to all of us! Only don’t make me your Grinch.
I am not at all offended if some store clerk wishes me a “Merry Christmas”, and neither should anyone. I know these people are wishing good things for me, because Christmas is good for them. I have taught my children to say, “Thank you” to those who wish us a merry Christmas. But what could possibly be offensive about anyone wishing anyone else “Happy Holidays”? Christians know that that means Christmas. And others know that that means, “Even if you happen to be different from me, I wish you the very best at the festive season.” Those are hardly fighting words. They actually seem like Christian words. These words should represent the Christmas spirit that all Christian believers cherish. Even a true Grinch, (not me!) would be offended by someone saying, “Happy Holidays.” A true Grinch would be offended by anyone saying happy anything!
Like some of you, I am concerned that there is not enough Jesus in Christmas. I am also concerned that there is not enough Jesus in Christianity. I am concerned this year that non-Christians are made to be society’s enemies. I can’t believe that Jesus would endorse this view. I am concerned that some Christians see their numerical majority as the right to bully the rest of us. I can’t believe that Jesus would endorse this view. Jesus was kind and was open and was generous in spirit. At least that’s the way I have experienced him through the eyes of true Christians who have shared their faith with me. And true Christians, I have learned, don’t need a megaphone to make their faith known. If these media bullies are really concerned about Jesus and Christmas, let them call to task those Churches which plan to close on Sunday morning, December 25 because too many Christians will choose to stay home to open their presents. Let them call to task those who buy for themselves and take for themselves, but do not share enough from their bounty with those in need. Let them emulate Jesus’ generosity of spirit, which curiously they seem to lack this year. Christians, please bring Jesus back to Christmas. And if this wish makes me your Grinch, well I guess that is the burden that I bear for you. And I do it with love.
Jonathan Miller is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, AL. He has served congregations in New Zealand, Los Angeles, and Birmingham.