’Twas five nights before Christmas, and my Lyft driver was the umpteenth person to wish me a “Merry Christmas” that day. He probably just meant it the way most people do, as a kind of December shorthand for “have a good day.” But he had a cross hanging from his rearview mirror. I said thank you, wished him the same, got out on my street — decorated with lights and wreaths and nativity scenes — went into my house and sighed.
I like good cheer. But please do not wish me “Merry Christmas.” It’s wonderful if you celebrate it, but I don’t — and I don’t feel like explaining that to you. It’s lonely to be reminded a thousand times every winter that the dominant American cultural event occurs without me.
Christmas is a lovely holiday, but it is definitely not a secular one. It is a celebration of Christ, as its very name implies. As a Jewish person, I have zero problems with your celebrating the birth of a person you believe is God’s only son, who grew up to die for your sins. I don’t share your faith, but I don’t begrudge you the joy of your celebration. In fact, I often participate, as I will this year when I bring Christmas presents wrapped in Christmas paper to a Christmas dinner with my friends and their sweet children. There’s no problem here: We know, respect and celebrate each other’s differences.
My family even celebrated a version of this holiday for decades. In the Soviet Union, run as it was by the self-declared militant godless, Christmas was a secular holiday: It was called New Year’s. People had New Year’s trees, decorated with New Year’s ornaments, under which Father Frost would leave New Year’s gifts. These images are central, beloved memories of my childhood — waking up to a sparkling, decorated tree in my room, piled high with presents that, given that it was the Soviet Union, were often slightly defective. When we came to the United States, we brought ornaments, some of which have been in the family for generations. For the first few years in the States, we’d get a New Year’s tree on Dec. 26, decorate it, lay presents under it and celebrate the New Year as we had for as long as anyone could remember.
But after a few years, we stopped. It was no longer a New Year’s tree in a Soviet house. It had become a Christian symbol in a Jewish house. Christmas was all around us, for nearly one-tenth of the year, every year. It began to feel deeply alien precisely because we were secular, but it was not. Despite the movies and the shopping, despite the Germanic decor, Christmas is still, at its core and by design, about the birth of Christ, a point that seems bizarre to argue. Just look at all those nativity scenes! And we don’t observe the holiday on just any day. Dec. 25 has Christian significance. Whenever I hear the name, I hear the “Christ” in it. To me, it’s strange that many of its celebrants do not.
And despite its celebration of a Christian god, it is everywhere, for over a month, in a way no other holiday is — not even Easter. It is in every ad, in every window and doorway, and on everyone’s lips. If you’re not a part of the festivities, even its sparkling aesthetic can wear you down. When you are from a minority religion, you’re used to the fact that cabdrivers don’t wish you an easy fast on Yom Kippur. But it’s harder to get used to the oppressive ubiquity of a holiday like Christmas. “This is always the time of year I feel most excluded from society,” one Jewish friend told me. Another told me it made him feel “un-American.”
To say it’s off-putting to be wished a merry holiday you don’t celebrate — like someone randomly wishing you a happy birthday when the actual date is months away — is not to say you hate Christmas. It is simply to say that, to me, Julia Ioffe, it is alienating and weird, even though I know that is not intended. I respond: “Thanks. You, too.” But that feels alienating and weird, too, because now I’m pretending to celebrate Christmas. It feels like I’ve verbally tripped, as when I reply “You, too!” to the airport employee wishing me a good flight. There’s nothing evil or mean-spirited about any of it; it’s just ill-fitting and uncomfortable. And that’s when it happens once. When it happens several times a day for a month, and is amplified by the audiovisual Christmas blanketing, it’s exhausting and isolating. It makes me feel like a stranger in my own land.
When I tried to explain this on Twitter, I earned thousands of attacks: people vindictively wishing me a Merry Christmas, vicious and ad hominem condemnations accusing me of being angry, whiny, impolite, self-centered, ungrateful, sad and, in general, a bad person. (“We’ve already got a reputation for being miserable f---s,” one Jewish commenter wrote, “let’s not make it worse.”)
I find this surge of hostility baffling. To voluntarily opt out of Christmas, apparently, is an act of aggression against Christmas itself. As if only miserable folks are displeased when people assume they are Christian. As if asking you to consider that your friendly utterance might come across as thoughtless is a betrayal of the holiday spirit. As if you cannot, in fact, opt out of Christmas and out of celebrating Christ’s birth. There’s something a little deranged about taunting someone of another faith with “Merry Christmas” after they’ve politely asked for a recusal. It feels out of step with what Christians say this holiday — and Christianity — is all about: peace, love and mercy. It feels, instead, to be of a piece with the warring tribalism that has consumed our politics.
How, I was asked, are people meant to know what you celebrate? They’re not. Which is why my wish, this holiday season, is for people not to make assumptions about others, to put themselves in others’ shoes, to respect others as they wish to be respected, to respond with kindness even when they disagree, to live and let live. I heard about a guy who used to say all that stuff, and apparently his birthday is coming up. Why not honor him that way?