I heard from my high school sons today that when a fellow student was greeted with “Merry Christmas”, his response was, “I don’t celebrate Christmas, I celebrate Yule.”

Granted, he was making a “statement”; he is not a Christian, but a practitioner of Wicca. Nonetheless, I baffles me why people react this way. It is as if the person giving the greeting was doing it with some malicious intent: “I hate you, so I am going to wish you a Merry Christmas!”

Why is it so difficult for people to accept the happiness contained in wishing the other person the joy of whatever holiday they are celebrating. Naturally, you would not wish someone a “Merry Christmas” if you know that they do not celebrate it; but if you do not know the person or what particular holiday he/she celebrates, why not wish them a sincere greeting of the holiday that means something to you? I wish someone a “Merry Christmas”, not in order to convert them to Christianity, or even to make a theological statement about the Feast; I am wishing them the same joy and happiness that I experience in celebrating the birth of Christ. If a Jewish person wished me a “Happy Hanukah”, I would accept it in the same spirit. Otherwise we are stuck with the colorless and meaningless “Happy Holidays”. Is there really someone out there who celebrates the generic feast of “holidays”?

The exchanging of greetings at times of celebration is probably the closest we get in our fallen society to love. The joy expressed in a greeting knows no social, economic, or academic classes. It is simply the gift of joy given from one person to another. When it is accepted and returned in the spirit with which it was offered, a sacred moment occurs which links two human beings, who may not even know each other, in a common bond of celebration and joy. I saw this today as we said good-bye to the guests at our St. Basil’s Soup Kitchen. After having enjoyed a warm meal and good company, the guests were returning to their sometimes lonely, sometimes difficult lives. But, as we wished each one a “Merry Christmas”, their faces immediately lit up. Their Christmases may not be particularly merry in reality, but for one moment there was a shared joy between us.

I remember a story from many years ago, told to me by a friend of mine who was a rabbi. When he was in college, he belonged to a choral group. It was the custom of this group to go carolling at Christmas time in a local nursing home. Being the only Jewish person in the group, he felt awkward and uncomfortable singing about the birth of Jesus. He even thought about not singing. Then he looked around at the faces of the old and sick people they were singing for. Their little offering of carols brightened their day, brought them some joy, and made them forget their suffering even for a brief moment. This sharing of joy transcended any theological divisions,and he felt more comfortable with the songs.

When we reject the joyful greetings of our fellow human beings, no matter what feast they may celebrate, we simply show ourselves as self-centered and incapable of love, incapable of accepting the love that is being offered to us by another person. This self-centeredness tends to be a characteristic of ours throughout the rest of the year. Maybe we could begin to correct it by sharing in the joy that is offered to us with a sincere heart.