Being Jewish around Christmas time presents many challenges. Do people send you Christmas or Hanukkah cards? How do you constantly explain that Hanukkah has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas besides a commercial assimilation into mainstream commerce? I, personally, would have nothing to do with Christmas if no one in my life celebrated it. But when it comes to friends and family, I’m more than willing to celebrate a secular Christmas.
The past two years, I’ve spent Christmas morning with my boyfriend’s family and to be honest, I have had a fabulous time. I mean, I can appreciate the aesthetic of Christmas lights and well decorated trees. And, thanks to nearly eight years of choir, I can sing along to any Christmas carol presented to me.
Yet, I feel like I don’t get a chance to truly experience the joy of (secular) Christmas for one main reason: I work in retail.
I am forced to deal with all of the negative aspects of Christmas for up to 40 hours a week from late September (yes, Christmas season starts that early) through mid-January (returns, obviously).
Retail on its own is an awful job, but there is something about the holiday season that brings out the absolute worst in everyone. Christmas cheer means long lines, the same six versions of the same Christmas song on repeat, and the absolute shock when I tell a customer no, I’m not celebrating Christmas, yes, I’m Jewish, and no, I have never seen the movie “Elf.”
Last year, one customer kept going on and on about “political correctness” and “keeping Christ in Christmas.” (Oy.) I am a very patient person — you have to be when you work retail — and I know it is nothing but emotional exhaustion to educate every customer about Hanukkah, so I have learned to pick my battles and let go when I can. This time, however, I could not.
After this guy was being super annoying about bagging, and making other customers wait a long time when it was already busy, the customer asked me what my Christmas plans were. I did not feel like lying, or ignoring, so, still being very polite, I replied, “Oh, I don’t celebrate Christmas, I’m Jewish.” Unaffected, the customer dared to say, “Oh, you don’t look Jewish, you don’t have the nose.”
Yes, he really said that.
So with the strength of a thousand Jewish Girls who have been self-conscious about their nose, I replied, “Thanks, I had a great plastic surgeon.” (Which is absolutely true, my plastic surgeon for when I had facial reconstruction was amazing, but my nose is very much my own.) I’m not sure if the customer could tell he hit a cultural nerve or that I was completely over this situation, but he took his items without saying another word and left.
Sometimes customers wish me a “Happy Hanukkah,” which is nice, but it only happens after I tell them I’m Jewish, or if they know me on a personal level. It does make me sad that I’m constantly being told “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Hanukkah,” but I remind myself: They don’t know me. They don’t know that I’m Jewish, but they know they want to send me nice thoughts and holiday cheer, which is positive. I also know that in Ohio, a lot of people have no idea of what Hanukkah is. So, I know I cannot be too upset with how little people know about Hanukkah.
But I can be mad at how much it is expected of me to celebrate Christmas. Christmas is everywhere, for so long, at full force. Working in retail, I see so many people who feel stressed to perform Christmas; I can feel their social and financial anxiety. I hear people cussing cashiers out for things as simple as knowing when the next shipment of Hatchimals will be in. I envy people who do not see this side of the holidays and get to celebrate like they haven’t just seen a toddler sobbing over a Despicable Me soap set. The days are long and there’s no real pay off.
Well, actually, there is one thing.
Last year, one of my managers put in a request for a stand-alone Hanukkah display for cards and small trinkets. (This display would be the only Hanukkah merchandise in the store, besides five greeting cards.) He had told me that we were approved, and it was to be put up before Hanukkah. It wasn’t, and for weeks and months, I jokingly bothered him about how there was never a Hanukkah stand until one day, he produced a huge display dreidel. Apparently, it got lost in the back room.
To make up for months of my disappointment, I got to keep the display dreidel, which I plan to use as a centerpiece this year. Happy Hanukkah to me.