Wearing a yamulka this time of year means hearing a lot of this: “Merry… er, um… Hanukkah!”

Some of this: “Happy… er… Christ… um. Hey, did you ever see Elf?”

And at least one of these: “In case I don’t see you later, have a… er, um… Do you know my dentist? He had a Jewish candelabra thingy in his office during my appointment last week.”

Noticeable discomfort from many people I speak with, all of whom earnestly want to wish me and my family the best for the season.  But they are suddenly caught off guard by not knowing whether wishing me a proud “Merry Christmas!” will offend me, have me thinking they know diddly squat about Jews or Judaism – or worse – figure them for some cultural imperialist who expects everyone to get with the program, especially those members of minority faiths that take their beliefs seriously enough to turn them into outer-wear.

Just a couple of pointers, then, for any of you looking to avoid the experience:

  1. Relax! There are worse things you could do than try extending some yuletide joy to someone like me. In fact, I’d feel worse if you didn’t want to wish me anything.
  2. Hanukkah ended weeks ago. It’s also a very different kind of holiday. It has to do more with celebrating freedom from oppression than watching gently falling snow and drinking eggnog. Many Jews I know can’t stand the fact that Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas has meant that a lot of the features of Christmas are presumed during Hanukkah. Gifts are always welcome, though.
  3. Many Jews have Christmas traditions that have nothing to do with celebrating Christmas. Elena Kagan, the newest addition to the US Supreme Court, earned Jon Stewart’s respect when she responded (youtube) as follows to a question during her confirmation hearing about where she was one Christmas day: “Y’know like all Jews I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”  Japanese restaurants work too. Before I had kids, it was a day for volunteering at soup kitchens.
  4. Some Jews celebrate Christmas as a cultural event that they feel a part of. Not me, but I’ve heard of others that do.  I remember reading a column in the New York Times a couple of years ago by one of the creators of “Sex In The City” who explained how for the first time in her life she decided to put up a little Christmas tree.  My sense is she’s definitely in the minority.

My grandmother once told me how when she was a child Christmas was one of the scariest days of the year because Christian leaders in neighboring towns in Poland would use Christmas mass to pump their congregants full of antisemitic energy that spilled out into bad news for the Jews.  Even though I live in a very different world than she did, and my Christmas celebrants are effectively the opposite of hers, the association is hard to shake. And it’s hard for me to ignore the religious roots in the day or to find personal meaning in a holiday with “Christ” in its name.

Christmas stirs this and more in many people. In North America, Christmas is one of the most powerful cultural events of the year and, suitably, is a subject of considerable debate and controversy.

Here’s a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg:

  • Marion Cohen, a judge on the Ontario Court of Justice, caused an uproar (CBC) several years ago by sending out a memo ordering that a Christmas tree be moved from the courthouse lobby.  She viewed the tree as a Christian symbol, and its placement was inappropriate in a courthouse of a multicultural society.  Judges are generally restricted from speaking to the media on many issues (for good reason), and its unfortunate in this case that she was unable to participate in the debate that ensued.
  • More recently, Chilliwack School District #33 made headlines (Vancouver Sun) last month by passing a motion to call the school vacation in December the Christmas holidays, prompting criticism that the move fails to recognize non-Christian groups.  Here is the answer from SD #33, effectively arguing that Christmas is a secular Canadian holiday.   Here (Kamloops Daily News) is an interesting response from a school board in Kamloops.  The Ministry of Education calendar refers to it as “winter vacation”.
  • The government of Quebec decided (Globe and Mail) recently that publicly funded day cares that teach a particular faith to their tots will lose their government funding.  How will the government decide what is part of a “religion” as opposed to a secular culture that grows out of it?  Excellent question. I have no idea.  It is going to be interesting to hear government officials try to draw the line.  Which classic Christmas songs will be allowed in day cares operated in church basements?  Can a day care in a Jewish neighborhood tell the story of Hanukkah?  We’ll see.

Rightly or wrongly, the fact is that Christmas, like other traditionally Christian holidays, has the strength of the law of our province and country behind it. For example, the term “statutory holiday” is defined in our Employment Standards Act (BCLaws) to include “Good Friday” and “Christmas Day”.

My take on it: live and let live. There are problems with the system, but there are more important battles to fight and nothing that spreads goodwill, generosity and concern for our common humanity should be impaired unthinkingly. Individuals are complicated, and groups of individuals are exponentially more complicated – the law, if it can be improved, will take some time to catch up.

In the meantime, I enjoy each Christmas with a dose of Hanukkah, appreciating that I live in a place and time of exceptional freedom and security relative to other places and times, where the issues I mentioned above are debated freely, where Christmas cakes have kosher symbols on them and the worst that can happen to me after a Christmas party is a hangover rather than a hanging.  That’s what makes me happy.  I’m lucky to live among people that give me a reason to look forward to time off, whether called “winter holidays”, “Christmas break” or anything in between.

On a related note, this marks just over a year of this blog.  Thanks to every reader who has contributed to it’s success, especially my family, colleagues and clients who have shown nothing but support and, more importantly, constructive criticism. Enjoy the break.  Take a breather, if possible.  I am fortunate to have you.  All the best for 2011.