A Christmas Mitzvah

From Wal-Mart to the White House, the fight over how to greet our fellow man this time of year has become a public embarrassment. Like Target, Sears, Lands' End and many higher-end retailers, Wal-Mart settled on "Happy Holidays," the innocuous greeting that covers customers of all religious persuasions and those of none. For much the same reason, the White House (even with its born-again occupant) sent greeting cards wishing a happy "Holiday Season" to 1.4 million recipients--and paid for by the Republican National Committee.

A number of Christian organizations, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, have vigorously objected to what they see as a pervasive effort to suppress mention of Christmas--as in "Merry Christmas." In response, Wal-Mart and several other retail chains have hustled to revamp their promotions to include a mention of Christmas. As for the White House, Laura Bush has assured the nation that the tree inside is truly a Christmas tree, not a holiday evergreen. And so continues the nation's culture wars in its (by now) annual Christmas edition.

The good news, as I see it, is that a few Jewish and Muslim organizations have joined the Christian activists--and 60 percent of all Americans, according to a Dec. 15 poll by the Pew Research Center--in supporting "Merry Christmas" as the preferred holiday salutation. Getting up close and personal, Jackie Mason, an ordained rabbi before he became a stand-up comic, drove down New York's Fifth Avenue in a stretch limo bearing a banner: JEWS SAY IT'S OK TO SAY MERRY CHRISTMAS. After all, if mention of Christmas can be muted, can Passover or Ramadan be far behind?

My suggestion is that anyone who thinks that non-Christians cannot, ought not go about with "Merry Christmas" on their lips--should go to B&H, the well-known camera and electronics outlet in New York City run by Orthodox Jews. Here's why.

Last week my wife went shopping there, looking for an MP3 player that a 13-year-old very much wants for Christmas. B&H had advertised a special deal, at $60, but by the time my wife arrived the special was all sold out. She could get one, she was told, but it would cost $100.

"Are you sure?" she asked the salesman, a pleasant man with a yarmulke pinned to his hair.

"I'm sure," he said, checking his computer.

My wife pleaded that she was on a tight budget for a good purpose. She had read of Stockings With Care, a volunteer group in New York City that coordinates with social agencies who work with impoverished families. The children have written down their Christmas wishes and through Stockings with Care, social workers provide these "wish lists" to people like my wife who buy the gifts. These presents are given to the parents so that on Christmas morning the children get exactly what they yearn for--and can thank Mom or Dad or other caregiver for making their wish come true. My wife had a list for five kids, and the oldest on it desperately wanted an MP3 player.

The salesman listened to this story, then said he'd see what he could do. He went back to his computer and rechecked the inventory. Sure enough, he found a discounted MP3 player he had overlooked, and even marked it down a notch to $50.

"Take it to the checkout," he directed my grateful wife. "And Merry Christmas."

The salesman recognized a mitzvah (good deed) in what my wife was doing, and he replied with one of his own. The moral of the story, if there is one, is that Christmas, though Christian in origin, can unite as well as divide. Or as Jackie Mason might put it, you don't have to be Jewish to wish someone Merry Christmas. But sometimes it helps.