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Happy specific holidays

Patrick McIlheran

Posted: Dec. 12, 2009

About 60 to 80 cars this Sunday afternoon will parade through Milwaukee-area streets, menorahs stuck to the roofs. Inside will be Jews wishing all the world a happy Hanukkah.

Are you, the non-Jewish majority of Wisconsin, offended?

Of course not. Nor should you be. These are people joyfully commemorating a miracle, a triumph of light over dark, fidelity in exile, religious freedom - good things. The parade, sponsored by the Wisconsin branch of the Jewish Lubavitch movement, leads to a lighting of a big, public menorah at Bayshore Town Center. As with most human celebrations, food and music will follow.

What are these people up to?

"In this modern age, what better way to publicize this miracle than by putting it on our cars?" said Rabbi Mendel Shmotkin when I asked. He runs adult education for Lubavitch of Wisconsin, and he says he saw such public Hanukkah parades when he studied in London. The Chabad Lubavitch movement has spread the idea to other big cities for a couple decades now, and in Milwaukee, it's gone well, Shmotkin feels.

"People are very supportive," he said, "waving, (saying) 'Happy Hanukkah,' 'Season's greetings,' whatever."

Which season would that be? Remember, with only about 21,000 Jewish people in all metro Milwaukee, one can conclude the majority of strangers seeing the parade pass are not Jewish. Hanukkah isn't their holiday.

Based on demographics, Christmas probably (though not certainly) is. For years, commerce has opted for neutrality, advertising to all possible customers with the emolliently generic "happy holidays." The phrase has become almost universal in advertising, so much that it's crept, as well, into the greetings individual people dispense this time of year.

"Happy holidays," people say, and if you complain about such blandness on days when people have specific reasons to celebrate, as I did on my blog recently, you may hear this rationale: I celebrate Christmas personally, the reasoning goes, but I wouldn't want to offend someone who doesn't.

Please note that I'm not suggesting that getting merry about Christmas be made forcibly universal. But how did our culture back into this self-censoring notion that joyful religious sentiments must be kept strictly private - that they must be assumed offensive to strangers?

Shmotkin, for one, doesn't buy into such ideas. He's not offended, he says, to see Christians celebrating publicly. Justly so: In America, no one can compel you into a faith you don't share. One runs into rudely pushy people, and while Judaism does not proselytize, parts of Christianity are big on it (as are other faiths). But such earnestness isn't the point of holidays. Celebrating is.

What's more, holidays celebrate very specific things. They're rooted in real events with transcendent importance: The oil in the temple lasted miraculously long. For Muslims on Eid al-Adha a few weeks ago, it was Abraham's trust in God. For Christians on Christmas, a child so different as to change history was born. These transcendent events give meaning to believers, life-changing meaning. They give joy.

This is the error in believing that it's an insult to accidentally wish joy to a stranger of another creed. "Happy Hanukkah," "Blessed Eid" or "Merry Christmas" are not usually demands on unbelievers. They are a well-meant overflow of goodwill.

To say them means you're not hoarding your joy but sharing it, knowing that it's human nature to feel uplifted a little upon seeing someone, even a stranger, smile or laugh or dance or celebrate. Joy is catching, and it's in our nature to express it.

Besides, is our society's liberty bruised by a parade of menorahs? No, nor does hearing the word "Christmas" in public harm it. It's in a public sphere filled with many faiths that we come to see tolerance as normal. An enforced public secularity teaches us that other faiths should grate on us.

"Happy Hanukkah," says the Lubavitch parade today, to which anyone can reply, "Thank you for trusting us to hear it."

Patrick McIlheran is a Journal Sentinel editorial columnist. E-mail