1. If I know the person celebrates Christmas, I say: "Merry Christmas."
2. If I know the person celebrates Hanukkah, I say: "Happy Hanukkah."
3. If I am a) unsure b) know that the person celebrates neither Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza, or c) know that the person has Issues About Religion, I say: "Happy Holidays."
However, I did always think that "Happy Holidays" is nice to say if you're not going to see the person again until after the New Year, since the phrase seems to imply: "I hope you have a nice December holiday of your choice and the New Year doesn't leave you particularly hung-over."
I never realized as a child that there was any reason to get upset because people didn't celebrate holidays 'correctly.' It seems that so many people have a kind of Platonic vision of how the holiday season should be honored, and they are mercilessly critical of their friends who don't live up to this standard. (And yet Plato never celebrated Christmas. A paradox). They say their friends are too materialistic, and only care about giving and getting cheap toys. Or their friends aren't getting their kids the right toys or enough toys. Or their friends are hypocritical because they celebrate the holiday BOTH with spiritual devotion and the giving of presents. Or their friends are making too big of a deal about Hanukkah just because of Christmas. Or their friends are celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas. Or their friends aren't celebrating anything at all and are going to the movies and ordering Chinese food.
Everyone thinks that their vision of the holidays is the right one, like they had as a child. Well, let me tell you mine. This is exactly how I think the holidays should be celebrated: the holidays begin in September, when you're supposed to be obsessively combing over the Sears Wish Book, and weighing the doll with long hair versus a stuffed kangaroo. You watch all of the Christmas specials live, then on tape, using the brown-paneled VHS your father bought because he has to have every new form of technology possible. You weep for Charlie Brown because you identify with him, and Rudolph and his little friend the dentist. You decorate the tree with red and green feathery tinsel, sparkly balls and wooden ornaments, and ornaments in the shape of cartoon characters. You use big, bright colored lights, not those pretentious teeny white lights that your stepmother will use many years later. You invite your friends over and make chocolate chocolate chip cookies from a mix and order in pepperoni pizza because cooking is so totally not the early 80s. You do not blot the oil-filled little discs of meat.
You sing Christmas carols, and even though you've never been educated in religion, you like the religious ones best because they sound the most haunting and dramatic. On Christmas Eve, you get to open one gift from your parents. On Christmas Day, you are in a frenzy of present-tearing ecstasy and nothing will ever make you so happy again. You go to your grandmother's Christmas party, your mother pulls you on a little red sleigh over the ice, since it's only one or two blocks away. You try homemade eggnog (barf) and fruitcake from a tin with extra maraschino cherries and green candied something and you love that. You eat dates, provolone cheese, pepperoni slices, suck on a candy cane, and try to avoid the healthy aunt that pours water in your root beer.
For some people, this vision is utterly alien. My cousins would go to Mass, for example, on Christmas Eve. Years later, my single mother and I would exchange cards, one or two gifts, go to the movies, and then eat at a diner (my great-grandfather would have been so proud, if only mom liked Chinese food). For others, a holiday without serious cooking and the Feast of the Seven Fishes would ruin their year.
This VHS-Rubik Cube-in-a-stocking-Speak n' Spell-under-the-tree holiday of my youth will never be again. Holidays change. Christmas, its date born of the proximity of the solstice feast in Roman times, has changed and will continue to change with the years. And so will Hanukkah. The holidays have both personal and sacred components, and the degree to which this is important will vary for every family. There is no single point in time where the perfect 'holiday' ever existed. And holidays bleed into one another. Irving Berlin (or Israel Isidore Baline as he was born) wrote the most popular Christmas tune of all, "White Christmas." People give certificates for yoga, an ancient Eastern practice, for both holidays. Herbie, the persecuted dentist in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, is probably Jewish. Many devout Orthodox Christians don't celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but around New Year's Day. My spirituality is anything but conventional, but I still cry at the Charlie Brown Christmas special, and the Alistair Sims version of A Christmas Carol, and when "O Holy Night" is sung by someone who can really sing (not me, alas).
Dates and customs are as mutable as memory. But from what I DO know of etiquette, the correct response to "Happy" or "Merry" anything is "thank you," or a polite, "I don't celebrate XYZ, but thanks" if the person guesses what holiday you happen to celebrate 'wrong.'
Since this post might sound sour, I will try to end it with something sweet. Alas, I first tried Ina Garden's Ultimate Ginger Cookie recipe and was quite disappointed. It was very dry (only using a scant 1/4 cup of oil for 2 1/4 cups of flour) and not even a feeble stab at decorating could improve it.
I preferred this recipe. Be forewarned, this is a true American cookie, not a ginger biscuit. But there is a time and a place to be chewy, a time and a place to be crisp, and the world is big enough for people with a wide variety of tastes and preferences in ginger-flavored desserts.
Unless you don't like ginger. In that case, woe unto you! Woe!
--yields 18-20 cookies--
3/4 cup melted butter (6 tablespoons)
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 beaten large egg
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
(1/4 teaspoon nutmeg and/or cloves optional--I left them out because they were so expensive when I went to stock up on baking supplies)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt (although I added a bit more, because of my personal preference)
granulated sugar for sprinkling
1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line two baking sheets with parchment.
2. Mix butter, sugar, molasses and egg together.
3. Sift flour, spices, baking soda, and salt together. Spoon slowly into wet mixture. Batter will be somewhat dry and sandy in texture.
4. Form 'balls' of dough, sprinkle or roll in granulated sugar. (I opted for sprinkling, since the dough is sticky).
5. Bake cookies for 10-13 minutes. Cookies will seem underdone when taken from the oven. Remove from cookie sheet after thoroughly cooled and hardened, and store in an airtight container.