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December 23, 2004

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to my Christian friends and readers.

With all the discussion about how the word Christmas and even minor acknowledgments of the holiday are being removed from public life, I just want to say Merry Christmas.

Christmas is not my holiday. I'm Jewish. But I agree with Charles Krauthammer and Rabbi Wohlberg (hat tip: Bob H.) that we should avoid secularizing our religions.

Now, the movement to secularize Christmas is mainly an effort of secular Christians, but some Jews are helping out, too. So for my fellow Jews, I have a few suggestions:

1. We Jews are fully equal to Christians in this country and have been fully equal since the creation of the Republic. That's what makes this such a wonderful country. However, we are now about 2% of the population and shrinking. Christians are, by various accounts, 75 to 85 percent. We are a minority, and we should respect the beliefs of the majority as much as we respect the beliefs of other minorities. If you're uncomfortable with being in a small minority, here are some ideas: Have more children; marry a Jew or encourage your spouse to convert; learn about your religion and find out what makes it beautiful; teach it to your children; show them its beauty. Look, I didn't say it was easy.

2. When Christians celebrate Christmas, it doesn't mean they are trying to convert you. Trust me -- when a Christian wants to convert you, you will not be in doubt. And when that happens, the correct response is a polite but firm "No, thank you." I get a lot of practice being polite when the Mormons knock on my door. Most Christians won't try to convert you, but those who do so think they are doing something for your benefit. You don't agree it's for your benefit. Say "No, thank you."

3. Bill O'Reilly is a jerk. A Jewish caller says he's uncomfortable with the celebration of Christmas, and O'Reilly tells him he should go to Israel. There's certainly an objective truth to this -- Christmas is barely a blip in Israel -- but it's gratuitously insulting. A person who is unhappy about something in this country may be over-reacting, but it's possible to point that out without advising him to leave the country. He could have reminded the caller that recognitions of Jewish religious observances are common here and that President Bush, a devout Christian, attended a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony, without advising the caller to leave the country. So he's a jerk. That said, the people who are demanding an apology from him are being ridiculous, and they diminish themselves.

4. If your friends or associates or people you have contact with are Christian -- if you know they are -- then by all means wish them a Merry Christmas. Respect their religious holiday. If someone who doesn't know you're Jewish wishes you a Merry Christmas, don't correct him; that will embarrass him. Just say, "Thank you." The person who said it meant well, and it won't make you any less Jewish to be polite. (Of course, if someone who knows you're Jewish wishes you a Merry Christmas, there might be something a little strange about it.)

5. Does the celebration of Christmas make you feel unusually Jewish? Good! Run with it. Become more Jewish. And remember, as a general matter, it's a good thing for Jews when Christians in this country adhere to their religion. In the U.S., most anti-semitism has been social and now it's mostly political. This is different from Europe, where historically most anti-semitism was religious in nature. In the U.S., I have found a high level of philo-semitism among Christians, particularly those who are devout and politically conservative. I am touched by their support. These are people who look for the best in others, and I hope we Jews will continue to have their support.

6. The nicest thing a Jew can do on Christmas is to volunteer to take the place of a Christian who would otherwise be forced to work on the holiday. (See Krauthammer.) This year is a problem for observant Jews, because Christmas falls on Shabbat (the Sabbath). But if you're not Sabbath-observant, do it. If you can't do this, look for a blood drive to donate blood. Many synagogues hold them in the days immediately following Christmas.

7. Last, remember that we are all Americans, even if we do not share a religion. Be respectful of your fellow Americans.