No duh, right? Maybe not.
At the grocery store last year, I was surprised by the indignation of a fellow shopper when the clerk wished her “Happy Holidays.” The woman glowered for a moment, then responded, without a hint of merriment, “Merry Christmas.”
Apparently she wasn’t alone. One organization is selling bumper stickers that read, “This is America! And I’m going to say it: Merry Christmas!” and “Merry Christmas! An American Tradition.” (I don’t remember the American part of the Christmas story, but I haven’t re-read Luke 2 yet this year.) Also for sale: “Just Say Merry Christmas” bracelets. (“They’re guaranteed to ward off the evil spirits of the ACLU grinches,” says the ad.)
There’s no menorah recorded here, nor a manger. Instead, there is a revolutionary in the temple that Judas Maccabeus had reconsecrated after defeating a massive imperial army, on the day that his victory was remembered. It was a provocative act, and John reports that Jesus’ fellow Jews were provoked. “How long will you keep us in suspense?” they asked. “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
Jesus did answer plainly, but he didn’t talk about Judas Maccabeus, Antiochus, Caesar, or Rome. “I did tell you, but you do not believe,” he said. “You do not believe because you are not part of my flock.” After another exchange, Jesus departed “across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days. Here he stayed.” Where Judas Maccabeus had fought his opponents, Jesus escaped.
The Jewish Hanukkah story is one of triumph over a culture that wanted to force the Jews to assimilate against their will. The Christian Hanukkah story is one that starts with Jesus asking provocative questions, but retreating rather than forcing the issue.
To insist that non-Christians say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” runs against the lessons of both Hanukkah stories.
Who knew? And Happy Holidays. Chanukah begins at sundown.