UNPOPULAR OPINION: I’m a Jewishly-Raised Atheist and I Don’t Mind if You Wish Me a Merry Christmas

“Merry Christmas” in a Christian-dominated multi-faith society is a subtle confirmation that I’m different, a little barb to remind me that I’m “other.” And still, I don’t care.
Publish date:
December 24, 2014
unpopular opinion, religion, holidays, Christmas

Earlier this month, my cousin posted his strongly worded opinion on Facebook:

Saying "Merry Christmas" to a stranger is not an act of kindness, it is an act of hostility. The speaker's subtext is, "My religion is the default position in this society and I'm proudly proclaiming it so that you, the listener, can either join me in celebrating our privileged position, or feel marginalized and outcast for not belonging to the majority group. Either way, I'm making sure you know your place." That hostility is present in every person who says it to strangers, no matter how much they smile while saying it.

I understand his sentiment. Much like we’d ask anyone in a privileged position to do a little privilege-checking now and then, saying “Merry Christmas” is an exercise of privilege in exactly the way he describes. “Merry Christmas” in a Christian-dominated multi-faith society is a subtle confirmation that I’m different, a little barb to remind me that I’m “other.” And still, I don’t care.

Here are a few reasons I don’t care:

#1: The people saying it to me usually don’t, relatively, have a ton of privilege of their own.

When I think of all the people who have wished me a “Merry Christmas” over the years, 90%+ of the people I picture are retail employees. What a difficult and stressful job. (I know, I’ve done it). Highly micro-managed, constantly putting out mini crises, exhaustingly tedious, horrible hours. You’ve been standing on your feet for hours, dealing with the grouchiest of all customers -- the frazzled last-minute holiday shopper -- all damn day, under constant scrutiny from management to work faster/do more, and you still have a little something in you to say something nice to me? I am giving you a pass.

The media is having a good time laughing at Scott Walker’s use of “Molotov” instead of “mazel tov.” First, because he chose the wrong word and second, because even if he had used the correct word, it isn’t how “mazel tov” is used in modern American Jewish parlance.

I’m no Scott Walker fan. He’s a pretty sizable douchebag. But, this is what I took away from the story: 1) Citizens asked for a public menorah display, to have their holiday included 2) Scott Walker honored the request 3) He honored it not with an obligatory tolerance but with eager acceptance.

Jews don’t have the best history when it comes to be accepted by our native governments. Even Chanukah’s most prominent symbol, the dreidel, comes complete with a false-yet-pervasive story about keeping traditions alive without detection of Jewishness.

In the present era, we have municipalities welcoming to public displays of Judaism. Even though this should be “no big deal,” it seems like a pretty big deal to me; I don’t take it for granted.

Normally, good intention doesn’t negate egregiously bad behavior (Leigh Anne Tuohy provides a good example of good intentions gone horribly awry). Being marginalized in some ways yourself doesn’t give you license to marginalize others. But, in this case, I see your good intention to say something nice to me and I’m letting it go. I’m just not going to crab at someone trying to do a good thing while trying to do a quite difficult thing, especially when I usually have more relative privilege in the moment of our meeting.

Historically, most of my friends and co-workers know that I am not Christian and take special effort and care with their words, to acknowledge that their holiday is not everyone’s holiday. If one of these people who has a bit more energy in the tank and a stronger personal relationship with me were to wish me a “Merry Christmas,” I’d probably feel differently than I do about the average person who wishes me a “Merry Christmas.”

#2: I am so othered 365 days per year that I’ve just accepted that I will pretty much always be other.

I am fat and queer. I have a shaved head. My wardrobe is a gender mish-mash. Apart from appearances, I am loud and frequently say what I am thinking. I get stares, stink-eyes, and side-eyes so often that it’s ceased to mean anything. At least half the time I don’t even notice it. I get asked a lot of inappropriately personal questions. I am almost always immediately recognized if I patronize any establishment more than twice.

When I think about people who feel really othered by “Merry Christmas,” I can’t help but think that during other times of the year that they must fit in quite seamlessly. Maybe they are some combination of white, straight, middle-class, able-bodied? I mean, I certainly have white and class privileges going in my favor year-round but, at the same time, being reminded that I don’t fit in or that I’m not part of mainstream culture doesn’t throw me for a loop because it’s my daily experience. “Merry Christmas” is but one of a zillion small things that make me feel like I’m not part of the “majority group.”

#3: The First Amendment guarantees me freedom OF religion but not freedom FROM religion.

The first amendment declares that government won’t establish an official religion, that I can practice any religion I want, and that I can’t be forced to practice any particular religion. It doesn’t protect me from regular citizens who want to express their religion (or any other idea).

I’m not arguing that because it’s legal that it’s OK; many things that are legal now or have been legal are not OK with me. I’m just saying that I can see why some people feel comfortable expressing their religious views in public as something they just do, as a freedom they enjoy, not necessarily as vehicle to hurt others.

As an unequivocal atheist, I am 100% uninterested in hearing anyone talk about religion. I occasionally bristle when it enters everyday conversations. I don’t like hearing “God bless you” after I sneeze. But I’m also a realist. So, when a stranger offers to pray for me, when someone tells me that my grandparents are “looking down” and are proud of me, or if I see a family close their eyes for a quiet moment before eating at a restaurant, I just let it go.

Yeah, it reminds me in at least half a dozen ways that I’m different but, at the same time, their ability to express their mainstream selves is part of the same framework that allows me the relative freedom to express myself a little differently. Most of the time, if someone says something I don’t care to hear, unless it requires redress, I try my best to just ignore it.

Now, a greyish area: Merry Christmas in the public sphere. As I mentioned above, the overwhelming majority of people who have wished me a “Merry Christmas” over the years have been retail workers -- individual people trying to do something nice as individuals. They don’t represent anything larger than themselves and certainly they aren’t representing any government in any official capacity.

What about religious songs in concerts at public schools? Nativity scenes on city halls? A menorah in front of a court house? That does start to feel like state-sanctioned religion. Even if a religious organization funds the creation and maintenance of the displays, it’s still an endorsement of sorts.

In philosophy, I am against religious songs in public schools. (No, putting a Chanukah song in your school’s “winter concert” doesn’t fix it.) I am also against holiday decorations on government property. But when I see the lite-brite-gone-wild display on my own area’s city hall, all philosophy goes right out the window. How can I be expected to stay mad at “Peace on Earth” spelled out in twinkle-lights or a gentlemanly snowman who takes his hat on and off ceaselessly:

Public religious displays can be sticky territory. Oklahoma had the Ten Commandments displayed on government property. The Supreme Court ruled that using public funds for religious displays was not constitutional, and in response, Oklahoma passed a bill to allow religious statues on government property if they were funded entirely from private sources. Given this law, a group petitioned to have a Satanic statue displayed in a place of equal prominence, and prevailed. The world has many religious traditions; will our civic approach to landscaping be the same as that one neighbor who leaves no inch of lawn un-festooned?

Also, there is no “war on Christmas.” Including other winter celebrations does not make Christmas any “less.” It makes about as much sense as saying same-sex marriage makes hetero marriage “less” simply by including it in the definition of civic marriage. If you want to “keep Christ in Christmas,” it might be useful to remember that one of the attributes that made Christ so Christ-like was that he accepted everyone without judgment.

How about you? Do you say “Merry Christmas” to strangers? How do you feel about “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays”?