As I walked down Cross Campus on a chilly afternoon in early November, a familiar melody caught my ears. “White Christmas,” the Irving Berlin classic, was playing from a speaker at a Yale Gospel Choir bake sale. For the first time since I came here, my thoughts turned to Christmas, and my body warmed from within.

Like Irving Berlin, I am Jewish. I have never been gifted anything, let alone stepped into a church, on Dec. 25. My family has never had a Christmas tree and never will. Still, I live in America and I look around.

This time of year, as the days grow shorter and colder, the public rituals of Christmas — the wreaths, the lights, the carols, the trees — make the world feel cozier, cheerier and closer-knit. Charity swells. Love calls. Decorations shine, and so does humanity: Facing a harsher world, at least around here, we together make it more like one big home. That’s enough of a Christmas miracle for me, one transmissible through just two words: Merry Christmas!

Alas, the current social consensus favors a different greeting, trading the evocative for the euphemistic. Though once used sometimes to refer to Advent or New Year’s, “Happy holidays” now reigns above “Merry Christmas” as the broadly accepted best practice, fully integrated into progressive orthodoxy and corporate speak. The implicit premise is that it’s insensitive to subject non-Christians to a Christian holiday’s name.

Some people who use “Happy holidays” mean to be promoting inclusivity; many do not, falling into it by default. Either way, they are sustaining an exclusionary myth: that Christmas is for Christians only. But who said you have to buy into the gospels to embrace the few weeks of merriment that are upon us?

No greeting can overcome the fact that Christmas makes the American holiday season what it is, from ever-growing genres of feel-good movies and music to a commercial bonanza that draws in the minor Jewish festival of Hanukkah. Besides, why try to obscure the source of such widespread joy? As a religious celebration and a cultural moment, Christmas deserves some credit.

Unfortunately, the best-known champion of “Merry Christmas” may be Donald Trump, whose 2015 campaign promise to promote the greeting exploited a yearning to shore up Christianity’s predominance in an increasingly diverse and secular country.

If I’m starting to sound like the right-wingers who perennially rouse fears of a so-called “War on Christmas,” don’t get me wrong: “Happy Hanukkah” and “Happy Kwanzaa” have their time, as will “Eid Mubarak” come the spring, and so forth. Liberals who prize such thoughtful greetings should not surrender “Merry Christmas” to the right. Let’s reclaim it for everyone, just as we should reclaim the American flag.

To my mind, it is precisely our wonderful diversity — in religion, culture, ethnicity and more — that demands we recognize each commemoration individually. “Happy holidays” stands in the way, snubbing every tradition in favor of the bland least common denominator. Does “happy” make anyone happy? Does “holidays” bring back sweet memories? Put them together, and alliteration can only do so much.

The idea of honoring what other traditions have to offer, and my particular fondness for Christmas, come in large part from my experience at the school I attended from pre-K to 12th grade. Each year in lower school, students would perform scenes of Jesus’ birth, but we would also learn about Passover, Diwali and the Lunar New Year. By high school, the Christmas customs included adapting carols in math class — think: “We Need A Little Calculus” — and a rapturous end-of-semester assembly featuring a morris dance performed by students like me.

How lovely and beautiful … and superficial? Or naive? Surely I can’t keep getting away with milking a holiday for simple lessons and good vibes. At least that’s what it started to sound like when I brought up the idea for this article with various friends.

One of them, an orthodox Jew, reminded me that Christmas had been an occasion for pogroms, giving him pause about its present charms. Another friend — a devout Catholic who supports anyone saying “Merry Christmas” — told me he hopes nonbelievers who indulge in popular Christmas cheer might start to wonder about its sacred roots, although he worries we’ll instead dilute the holiday by secularizing it.

Loosening my hold on a holiday that will never truly be mine would probably be the easier path. But it would not make for the richest life afforded by a world, and in some ways a campus, as heterogeneous as ours. Tapping into that richness sometimes means laying history and purity aside. It means abandoning empty catch-all language and exchanging our most accessible customs in the public square.

If you come to the Slifka Center during Hanukkah, which lasts this year from the nightfalls of Dec. 7 to Dec. 15, you can play some dreidel, a game of luck named for the requisite spinning top. Legend has it that Jews persecuted by the Hellenistic king Antiochus IV in the second century BCE would keep dreidels handy while studying Torah so they could quickly cover the scrolls and begin playing if the authorities approached.

History, it turns out, says otherwise. European Jews, likely in the eighteenth century, picked up the same spinning-top game we know now from — guess what — Christians who played it at Christmastime. Hanukkah, a celebration of Jewish triumph, doubles as evidence of what’s possible when people borrow from another group’s delights.

Of all the religious and cultural traditions that merit our interest, one is in the air now like no other — a truth so marvelously plain that it cries out for acknowledgement. Whether addressed to a dining hall worker, appended to an email or exclaimed to the sky, “Merry Christmas” will do the trick. If that’s too far, here’s my plea: Let your mind be open and your heart be light.

ETHAN WOLIN is a first-year in Silliman College. Email him at

Ethan Wolin covers City Hall and local politics. He is a first year in Silliman College from Washington, D.C.