In It For The Money: Happy Holidays!

Xanukah isn't a "Jewish Xmas."... Similarly, Ramadan isn't a "Muslim Lent," Diwali ins't "Hindu Halloween" – or even a "Hindu Xanukah," despite the fact that Diwali is also the "Festival of Lights."

Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. Unlike Xanukah, it did not come early this time around.

Xanukah came early this year, and so did the Holiday headaches.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

For example, due to issues both mathematical and autobiographical [1], I had a hard time getting Xanukah candles. Although I’m generally inclined to attribute these sorts of minor inconveniences to broad anti-Semitic conspiracies [2], I’ll admit that, in all fairness, this particular annoyance was mostly on me.

Owing to a family party, a Jewish Community Center party, a congregation party, a collision with a nominally secular national holiday, and some associated family travel, we got all the way to the eighth night of Xanukah without buying candles. And lo, on the morning of the seventh day [3], there were no Xanukah candles to be found in Ann Arbor.

I started driving up and down Washtenaw Avenue, then calling drug stores and groceries all over town, and it was always the same drill: I’d repeat “Xanukah candles” three or four times, and the clerk or manager or whoever would finally get his or her head around what the hell I was asking, and then very nicely, very apologetically, explain that they’d received a small shipment a day or two before, but sold out almost immediately.

Everyone was very nice and very concerned that I couldn’t acquire my ritual candles, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them that, despite the annual hoopla in the Gentile-controlled media, Xanukah is a really, really minor military holiday, and so it wasn’t a big deal.

But when I went into Hiller’s, I had a funny exchange with the clerk. I asked her if there were Xanukah candles (repeat × 3), and once she figured out what I was saying she said no, and apologized. She noted I wasn’t the first person to come in that morning (it was 9 a.m.), and that “you’d think we’d have them, because we’re a Jewish store, but no, we’re all sold out.”

Corporate Religion

Now, the thing is, Hiller’s Market is not a “Jewish store.” Despite what the mavens of Hobby Lobby might be arguing with the SCotUS, corporations like Hiller’s Market don’t have religions. We know this because, in all of the “I Went to Heaven” accounts ever penned, no one has ever claimed: “I came through the tunnel of light, and I was up above the clouds suspended in golden light, and there was Jesus, and he personally reunited me with my Uncle Luke, and my belovéd grandparents, and Gimbels, and Palm, Inc., and American Motors …”

Nonetheless, I understood what this nice lady meant, because Jim Hiller is a prominent regional Jewish philanthropist. But Hiller’s Market isn’t a “Jewish store,” it’s a grocery store that happens to be owned by Jews.

Still, I am struck by the stark difference between a “Jewish store” like Hiller’s Market and a “Christian store” like Hobby Lobby.

You can walk into a Hiller’s Market and you’ll have no notion that the business is “Jewish.” They’re open on the Jewish holidays and the Jewish sabbath (sundown Friday through sundown Saturday), and they stock plenty of Xmas stuff. Heck, Hiller’s even stocks their Jewish ritual wares (like shabbat, Xanukah, and yahrzeit candles) in the “International” aisle [4], just like Meijer stores – which bear the name of their former chairman, the notable regional Gentile philanthropist Frederik Meijer.

Conversely, Hobby Lobby is not open on the Xtian sabbath (which means Sunday business hours in this case, but I’ll admit to my ignorance of the way Gentiles handle the start and end times of their ritual day), denies their workers healthcare deemed ritually unclean among Xtians, and (at least until recently) declined to stock Jewish-themed celebration items [5].

More to the point: Neither of these establishments could help me with my Xanukah candle problem that day. Hiller’s couldn’t help me because I’d been lazy and waited too long. Hobby Lobby couldn’t help me because they would sort of prefer I didn’t exist.

And thus, after a manner, we arrive at why I don’t particularly find this to be the most wonderful time of the year.

The Gentile War On Xmas [6]

Not surprisingly, public religious practices like Hobby Lobby’s make me feel distinctly unwelcome. These sorts of displays inevitably increase in frequency at about the same time that shopping malls start putting up their Non-Denominational Holiday Trees, invite in their Religiously Unaffiliated Endomorphic Gift-Request Service Staff, and start pumping out the Just-Coincidentally-Almost-Exclusively-About-Xmas music.

As another example, consider a stocking stuffer mug from the National Republican Congressional Committee gift shop, which reads: “Happy Holidays” is what liberals say — and is set in the much-maligned Comic Sans typeface, no less!

Liberals say Happy Holidays

Liberals say Happy Holidays

What’s the message here? Isn’t this just a really pointed way of saying that the GOP isn’t for folks like me [7]? If there’s some other way to read this – one that doesn’t very clearly tell me I’m unwelcome in the Party of Lincoln – I’m eager to hear it.

Or how about a Xanukahtime press release from the American Family Association, calling for a boycott of RadioShack because the retailer doesn’t use the word “Christmas” on their advertising materials. The Shack instead opts to hype their “holiday deals” on “holiday gifts” during this “holiday season.” I’m not alone in reading this as one bunch of Gentiles urging a big mob of like-minded Gentiles to go hassle another bunch of Gentiles for insufficiently alienating my family.

When I tweeted about this, a pal replied that he had reached the point of just assuming groups like the AFA pulled stunts like this to drum up year-end donations. Frankly, that depresses me even more – because now my options are to believe:

  1. The Xtians of the AFA actually find offensive the well-meaning, if clumsy, attempt by a Corporate Person, like RadioShack, to make me feel welcome, or
  2. The AFA is built on a business model of picking on a disinterested minority in order to fleece bigots, or
  3. The executives of the AFA are blowing a dog-whistle to make sure members of various minorities know to keep a low profile – which, incidentally, also gratifies the bigots they are fleecing in option (2), and is possibly a consequence of (1) – hat-trick!

There’s no way to read that AFA press release that doesn’t make me feel bad about my country, and a little concerned about my family’s safety.

On a more personal note, here’s a pro-tip, just in case you wake up tomorrow to discover you are suddenly and inexplicably Jewish: When someone urges you to have a “Merry Christmas,” and you reply with “Happy Holidays” (a 100% accurate and meaningful reply for you) and that jolly old elf sours and pointedly corrects you by repeating “Merry Christmas” – you keep your mouth shut. In my experience, this is not the time to attempt to “open a dialogue.” Folks do not like surprises or direct contradictions, especially around Xmastime. Just say “Right back atcha!” and keep moving.

Merry Microaggression

I know this reads as petty whinging. I know these seem like tiny annoyances. But recall the fundamental lesson of the Spanish Gentile Water Torture: Tiny annoyances aggregate, and given time will slowly drill a hole in your skull and drive you mad.

In 1970 psychologist Chester M. Pierce coined the term microaggression to encapsulate this very experience of “subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put downs.’” Pierce was a Harvard psychiatry professor, the first African-American full professor at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the first black man to play college football south of the Mason-Dixon line. According to Pierce, “one must not look for the gross and obvious. The subtle, cumulative miniassault is the substance of today’s racism.” A quarter century later, he wrote “In and of itself a microaggression may seem harmless, but the cumulative burden of a lifetime of microaggressions can theoretically contribute to diminished mortality, augmented morbidity, and flattened confidence.”

Pierce’s work in racial microaggression was popularized among clinicians by a 2007 article Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice (Derald Wing Sue, et al.) In their work, Sue (et al.) divide microaggression into three sub-categories: microassault, microinsult, and microinvalidation.

Microinvalidation – which Sue defines as “communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person” – resonates strongly for me [8].

What so terminally bums me out about the Holidays is not just the weird bullying from entities like Hobby Lobby and AFA and stressed-out Xtians who are just trying to wish you a Merry Christmas! What bums me out is the totally well-intentioned, general false-inclusion. And this year – this year of all years – was a once-in-a-lifetime demonstration of that, because Xanukah came hideously early this year.

So instead of hearing ad nauseum false equivalences drawn between Xanukah and Xmas (“It’s the Jewish Xmas!”), I heard numerous dubious equivalences drawn between Xanukah and ThanXgiving (“It’s like a Jewish ThanXgiving for the victory of the Maccabees!”)

This is incredibly frustrating – because the equivalence, driven by a well-intentioned desire to be inclusive – is so needless. Xanukah isn’t a “Jewish Xmas.” It’s Xanukah – a relatively minor religious holiday celebrating a military victory. If anything, it’s sort of a Jewish Fourth of July – which is more apt, but just as nonsensical. Similarly, Ramadan isn’t a “Muslim Lent,” Diwali isn’t “Hindu Halloween” – or even a “Hindu Xanukah,” despite the fact that Diwali is also the “Festival of Lights.”

Inclusion is nice, but you do it by including others in the stuff you are doing, not by arguing that their things are sub-functions of yours. We’re not idiots; we haven’t failed to notice that the entirely secular “Holiday Break” from school conveniently centers around Xmas and the Gregorian calendar roll-over date, and that “Spring Break” is aimed to coincide with Easter – not Passover.

One of the principal privileges of being in the Majority is that you get to be, by definition, “normal.” You don’t find yourself constantly contradicted by outsiders – well-meaning television shows and well-wishers and folks planning office parties – as to what your holy days mean. You don’t have to wrestle with autocorrect about the spelling of your holidays and well wishes. You don’t have to disclose a lot of personal details to explain why this or that day is no good for a meeting, because no one schedules a meeting for December 25th.

They’re “microinvalidations,” because they are each really small, but as they collect they take on weight that grinds you down and makes you kind of nuts.

‘Tis the Season for Misery

So, we’ve established why I’m so cranky when XanuXmastime rolls around – because it’s the period when I absorb the bulk of my year’s antisemitic microaggressions. But the thing is, most Gentiles are reportedly intermittently miserable at the prospect of Xmastime, too. As someone who, even as a lifelong participant, has always felt like an outsider on Xmas, it’s this Xtian misery that, as time wears on, has become the principal mystery of the season.

I could have it all wrong, but my understanding is that Xmas is the principal festival of the Gentile ritual calendar, both among practicing and secular Xtians. So, my corresponding celebrations would be Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur in the fall, or Pesach in the spring. These holidays can be trying – there’s family to visit, hit-and-miss religious services, big meals to prepare, schedules to juggle, fasting – but I don’t know any Jew who dreads them as every Gentile seems to at least somewhat dread Xmas. For that matter, I don’t dread Xanukah – it just annoys me, at worst.

Listen, I have to admit that, taken objectively, your Xmas is pretty rad. Explaining it to my own son, I’ve said something along these lines:

Xmas is the celebration of the birth of the Xtian God, the Undying Son, who ultimately promises to liberate his followers (a sect of ancient Jews) from death – although all of that is celebrated at a different holiday, Easter, which is sort of like Gentile Passover. The Undying Son doesn’t play much of a role in Xmas, because he is still just a baby at that time.

The principal deity of Xmas is Santa Claus. He is fat – like the Budai – and clad in a blood-red suit. He loves children, and promises to play tricks and break into homes and remove barriers and grant boons and sort the worthy from the unworthy – so he’s sort of Coyote, and sort of Ganesh, and sort of Thoth.

But, like our Meshiach, he doesn’t ever actually show up; like us, the Gentiles are stuck eternally awaiting his advent. Unlike us, the Gentiles are not content to sit around waiting. Instead, they disguise themselves in his garb, and use this anonymity as an excuse to practice some of the highest levels of tzedakah and tikkun olam, and also to give loved ones gifts without having to admit to having done so. This Xmas Spirit is the principal embodiment of the Universal Mutual Caretakership that is the Xtian’s central creed.

The virtues of generosity and kindness are central to the nominally Xtian people. Gentiles – even otherwise secular Gentiles – make great sacrifices at this time of year in the pursuit of these rituals, and in assuring that even the least among them are able to participate in ritual gift exchange.

All told, it is a slightly bizarre ritual, but charming in its own right. They are a noble and charitable people and, despite how things often turn out, they really do mean well.

In that light, I really do sincerely wish each and every one of you a very Merry Xmas, and may your New Year be good, and sweet.



[1] For those not in the know, Xanukah runs eight consecutive nights sometime between Thanksgiving and Xmas. Sorry I can’t be more precise; Jewish holy days are anchored to the Hebrew calendar – a kludgy luni-solar affair consisting of 12 months of 29-ish-days each, with a leap month plopped in on a seven-in-19-years schedule that’s disputed to this day. For the mathematically inclined, the current leap month rule is:

(7y+1) mod 19 < 7 ⇒ leap year!

This might be read aloud as something like: “If seven times the Hebrew year, plus one, has a remainder less than seven when divided by 19, then it is a leap year. Probably.” On Jewish leap year Jews throughout the Universe cram in an extra Adar at the end of the ecclesiastical year (i.e., February-ish – and, yes, the Hebrew calendar concurrently tracks two kinds of year, each with its own start/end points).

If you’ve ever had the sneaking suspicion that these Jewish holidays are a bit inconsistent, shiftily skulking all over the calendar – well, sir, that is racist (and basically accurate).

Like all Jewish observances, Xanukah is celebrated at sundown. For ancient desert-dwelling folks with no mechanical clocks, “midnight” is a useless abstraction, while “sundown” is pretty readily observed. Also, the rabbis tell us that the Torah tells us that God told us to do it this way.

At any rate, once you locate Xanukah, you celebrate for eight consecutive nights by lighting n+1 candles, where n = the ordinal number for that day of Xanukah, and the +1 is the shamash, a “helper” candle whose sole purpose is to light the other candles, and otherwise has no ritual significance.

If you pour some pre-calc sauce over the sum of that series, you would conclude that a box of Xanukah candles contains 44 candles:


In my experience, the odds of actually consuming exactly one box of Xanukah candles in a given year are basically nil: You end up spending some nights with family or friends at their homes, and maybe miss one or two because of non-sectarian evening plans.

Plus, Xanukah often overlaps with Xmas, at which time Xanukah tends to be suspended in mixed households like ours.

In Jewish parlance, my wife and I are a “mixed marriage,” in that only one of us is Jewish. Although my parents aren’t technically “mixed” – my mother (raised a Congregationalist) converted to Judaism – when I was a kid in Metro Detroit, very few individual Jews (or even congregations) fully recognized a doctrine of conversion, despite thousands of years of Jewish conversion; there are recognized conversions in the Torah, just not in West Bloomfield. Even today, even here in peace-love-&-understanding Ann Arbor, “mixed marriage” is an issue that many congregations feel they need to help their members “cope with.”

I’d like to take this moment to advise folks struggling to cope with my family’s various multi-faith unions to keep their earnest concerns to themselves. I have no Holiday Spirit left for concern-trolling bigots.

At any rate, whether or not you recognize the validity of Jewish conversion, the math is pretty simple: I grew up with two Xtian grandparents, and they always came for Xmas, which continues to be the primary gift-giving holiday on my family’s ritual calendar, always superseding Xanukah during date collisions. And, while I remember several childhood Xanukah gifts with a grade-schooler’s special soft-focus fondness, what I remember most of Xanukah is the hot wax and candle light, and our long-haired cat catching fire on the Xanukiah year after year. The presents were blessedly secondary – as is right and good. After all, it really isn’t a gift-giving holiday.

At any rate, for a variety of reasons, each year my household finishes out the Festival of Lights with a day or two worth of spare candles – which means that, lazy and efficient as I am, I can generally ignore prepping for Xanukah, because I know I’ve got at least a few candles handy from last year. You need only a few to cover the first several nights: over the course of the first half of Xanukah, you only use 1/3 of the candles in a box. If you missed days 7 and 8 last year, than you’ve got enough candles to get you through days 1 through 4 this year). In my experience, picking up a box of Xanukah candles on the fourth night is usually trivial; the rush, after all, was a week ago by that point.

If you’re tempted to draw some sort of money, math, and Jews conclusion right now, I’ll have you know that is racist, good sir! Racist and accurate!

[2] A handful of other Jews I know, spread all across this great land, reported similar challenges sourcing candles for the first night of Xanukah – although, again, I’m not saying there is a vast anti-Semitic conspiracy … in this instance.

[3] Which technically follows, not precedes, the seventh night because, as you’ll recall, our holy days begin at sundown, not midnight or sun-up as one might expect, and I know that’s sort of confusing, and I apologize, but this calendar was here when we showed up, and we’re sorta stuck with it now

[4] … Jewish Conspiracy zing!

[5] There’s reasonable public dispute as to what degree Jews should take this as a slight. Yes, several different Hobby Lobby workers at different stores seem to have answered inquiries about their store’s dearth of Jewish celebratory items by responding along variations of “we’re a Xtian store, and don’t cater to those people,” and yes the Greens – who own the Hobby Lobby Corporate Person, and are both staunchly conservative Christians and supporters of Israel – were almost sorta quick to apologize and consider possibly changing their policies, but I want to make three quick observations:

  1. I’ve travelled all over the Gentile-dominated US, and have been perplexed, time and again, by how common it is for stores to stock Jewish speciality items. I’ve walked the aisles of grocery stories in the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky, and the panhandles of Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma, in the vast and largely Jewless plains of our bread basket, and sure enough, there in the “International” section, there’ll be a couple boxes of Manischewitz matzo ball mix, some gelt, and a few dusty cans of kosher-for-Pesach macaroons. The Hallmark aisle, likewise, will have one or two Xanukah cards, a bris card, and some solemn condolences with a Jewish star on it. These were big box places, mom-and-pop places, groceries and drug stores, all in towns where I certainly felt like the only Jew in a 300 mile radius. How many bris cards do they sell in Elk City, Oklahoma? The simple answer is that even with next-to-zero demand, these are shelf-stable items taking up very little space. It’s a rudimentary long-tail strategy.I’m not leveling accusations, Mr. Green, but I am going to note that a Build-Your-Own Menorah kit is also small and shelf stable, and it sorta tests credulity that a Hobby Lobby couldn’t spare the 20-square inches to stock one in Jew-rich New Jersey, but a crumbling Food Lion in West Virginia has two shelves to spare for gefilte fish and kosher gelatin.
  2. Supporting Israel hardly equates to supporting – or even particularly tolerating – Jews in general. There is a whole terrifying sub-string of Armageddon Xtianity that desperately wants to maintain a Jewish Homeland in the Promised Land because it is somehow integral to their faction’s End World Ragnarök D&D Expansion Set Mythology. Friends don’t make friends into pawns in their weird apocalyptic death trips, Mr. Green.
  3. In whatever way the Greens run their business, they seem to have done it in a fashion that leads their workers – and a decent chunk of their customers – to conclude that the in-store merchandising is a result of the owners’ faith. This is very reasonable, because the Greens have been quite explicit that lots of other business decisions – like closing on Sunday or denying their workers healthcare which the Greens deem to be ritually unclean – are driven by their faith.

[6] If you’re a God-fearing Xtian type and you feel like I’ve been being a smart-ass and tweaking you by writing “Xmas” for the last thousand words – well, then you are perceptive, ’cause I am and I have. But if you think the abbreviation “Xmas” indicates an attempt to extricate the “Christ” from the “Christmas” – either by culture at large, or me in particular – you’ve got another thing coming; please permit my close chum Fritz Swanson to drop a little Xtian erudition on you: “Keeping the X in X-Mas

[7] Incidentally, while the stereotype that “All Jews are Democrats” is indeed broadly predictive, the Michigan GOP enjoys some meaningful support among Metro Detroit Jews, both historically and today. E.g., the current chairman of the Michigan Republican Party is Jewish – which I guess would makes the MI GOP a “Jewish business” in some eyes, just like Hiller’s. [Sighs]

[8] In this particular paper Sue (et al) specifically consider microaggressions as experienced by people of color. As of 2010 Sue had expanded the work to include religion, gender, social class, perceived disability, etc.

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  1. By Chris
    December 20, 2013 at 11:42 am | permalink

    The JCC almost always has a little shop set up in the lobby with various colors and styles of Hannukah candles. Convenient from the #5 bus if that’s the way you roll.

  2. By Mark Tucker
    December 21, 2013 at 10:29 pm | permalink

    This was one of the most illuminating articles I have read in a long time. It really made/makes me think about how our religious traditions, and rituals in general, have so many hidden personal, cultural and economic consequences. Thanks for writing and sharing this enlightened perspective.