When I am home in New York City, I often join friends at some pub or other to relax and catch up with each other. Several years ago, I happened to be in the city at year-end. As a bunch of us stepped out of Patrick Conway’s on 43rd Street into a snowy night, a boy of about 15 approached me. From his black garb and long side curls, I knew he was a member of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement that gives guidance to non-observant Jews who might wish to return to religious observance. He had a look on his face that was half-hopeful, half-scared.
“Are you Jewish?” he asked me. (If only he knew!)
“No, I’m not, but thanks for asking. And Happy Chanukah!”
I thanked the kid because his question was rooted in a desire to help me if I needed it and wanted it. And in gratitude, I offered him my best wishes for his holiday.
He looked a bit relieved, thanked me and moved on, continuing his search for fellow Jews who might want to repent of having eaten ham and cheese on rye washed down with Smithwick’s ale.
It’s a safe bet that lad had already heard a variety of answers, including some unforgivably offensive ones. That’s probably the reason he looked first half-scared and then relieved. People can be pretty nasty at the season of holiday cheer, especially if their cheer comes from having stayed one glass too long in a pub.
The year-end holidays can be a minefield when it comes to greetings. Though most Japanese, of course, happily exchange Christmas and New Year greetings, among Tokyo’s expats, there are some who have brought the battles of their homelands with them. I think it was John Kenneth Galbraith who called this the Age of Universal Indignation. Ironically, it never seems more so than at this time of year when believers and nonbelievers alike talk of harmony and peace.
“How dare you assume I believe your religion and wish me a Merry Christmas?”
“Let’s boycott that godless store that says Season’s Greetings instead of Merry Christmas!”
This is a season of lights — menorah candles, twinkling bulbs on trees and store displays, the star over the manger, the glowing noses of revelers. Let’s take a hint from them all and lighten up.
When someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, it’s a safe bet that he or she is not planning to next douse me with baptismal water, any more than the guy who wishes me Happy Holidays plans to feed Christians to the lions in Ueno Zoo. They are wishing me well as best they can, just as that boy on 43rd Street was doing. They do not know what I may believe or disbelieve, but I do, or should, recognize their good intentions. Those good wishes are more important than the adequacy of their words to my own unobvious opinions. (Unless, of course, I’m in my priestie beastie work clothes, in which case my holiday focus is at least guessable.)
Hyper-offendable Christians and hyper-offendable others should recall that whatever our beliefs or lack of them, good manners require that we focus on others rather than on ourselves and give them the benefit of the doubt when evaluating their motives for being nice. It’s the least we can give in the season of gifting.
When I was a boy in an overwhelmingly Catholic neighborhood in the Bronx, the local optometrist was Jewish. He was my personal sage, someone who dispensed not only eyeglasses, but wisdom as well. Each year, Doc put a nativity set in his shop window, while Christian shopkeepers were generally content with wreaths, trees, garlands and Santa Claus. One year, I asked him why he did so. Doc answered that Christmas was an important celebration for his friends and patients and he wanted to acknowledge that and congratulate them on their joy.
Why assume that anyone else’s reasons for greeting me in this season are any different from Doc’s? This time of year is an important celebration for just about everyone in some form or other. Why not assume that when another greets me, the intent is the same as Doc’s: to acknowledge and share joy.
This year, let’s try to keep in mind that the proper response to any well-meant greeting is, “Thank you, and the same to you.”
In the meantime, Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays, Joyous Winter Solstice and whatever other greetings I may have missed that would make your entry to a new year pleasant.
William Grimm is a Maryknoll priest in Japan.© Japan Today