Are you a happy or bitter person by nature? The Christmas season is one way to tell. If someone wishes you a “Merry Christmas,” do you respond with a hearty greeting of your own, or do you glare back angrily and state that you don’t celebrate Christmas, or declare that wishing someone a merry Christmas is presumptive and inappropriate?

“Are you saying that all non-Christians are bitter?” Heck, no! One rabbi I know happily accepts holiday well-wishes from everyone and returns them in kind, but he is a happy person by nature. It doesn’t bother him that people often wish him a merry Christmas because he is secure in his religion. Regardless of the winter holiday I am greeted with, I can accept the well-wishes in the happy spirit in which they are offered.

When I have witnessed people who get a grouchy or sharp response to their holiday greeting, I have seen the joy of the season drain from their faces. One grumpy person’s bitter view succeeded in killing the happiness they felt–killjoys, in the full sense of the word.

You can see this same bitter reflex in action when a man holds open a door for a woman as a kind gesture, only to be rewarded with an angry retort of “I can open my own door!” The gesture wasn’t meant to be an insult, but a simple act of kindness. Heck, I hold the door open for anyone who comes up behind me, male or female. But for some people, the first response is to see offense where none was meant.

Or have you ever tried to compliment someone on her appearance or choice of outfit, only to be slapped down for it? (I use “her” because I rarely see this sort of response in men.) Freud said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a “Nice dress” is just a compliment, not a male way of grunting, “You. Me. Sex. Now.”

There are so many ways we complement and wish each other well. And it is our reaction to these complements and well-wishes that shows whether we are basically happy or bitter inside. The good news is that being happy or bitter is a matter of habit and not a fixed characteristic. We can change our attitude, if we choose to, merely by resolving to respond to well-wishes in the same spirit as they were offered. Here’s hoping that your nature is the former and not the latter.

Merry Christmas to you, and a Happy New Year!

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