Neal Milner: Why I Don't Mind Being Uncomfortable At Christmastime - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

For me, every day in Hawaii is Christmas because Christmas makes me uncomfortable. So does Hawaii.    

My holiday gift to you is this gift of discomfort. 

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What a grinch. Just what we need, a Debbie Downer at Christmas telling us to feel bad.

Bear with me. It’s not about feeling bad. It’s about how this discomfort can make you feel good.

Discomfort has been a positive force in my life here. It could very well be in yours, especially if you, like me, didn’t grow up in Hawaii.  

Discomfort and outsider go together. I’m uncomfortable here because I am an outsider.  

Here’s how I described being an outsider in an earlier Civil Beat column: “My life is about finding a way to belong and at the same time be distant and different.” 

That tension can be awfully uncomfortable. It’s worth it. It gives me the opportunity to love Hawaii and be committed to the place. Discomfort allows me to feel part of this place while still keeping my eyes wide open.

Here’s how discomfort benefits generally. Then we’ll look at how it works for me during Christmas in Hawaii.

Short Version: Discomfort’s Benefits

A couple of social scientists recently did an experiment with an improv class at Chicago’s famous Second City, where Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert got their start. 

People who want to learn improv think the idea is so cool until they actually show up for class. Then it’s not so much Second City as Performance Anxiety City.

The researchers wanted to see what happens if they asked some of the students to purposely do things that made them feel even more uncomfortable

Compared to the others, those students performed with more confidence and verve. They took more risks in improvisation classes, engaged more in an expressive writing exercise, and became more open to variety.

Other studies have shown the same thing. As Ayelet Fishbach, who did that improv research says, “Moderate emotional discomfort is a signal that you’re developing as a person, and it often happens before you can detect the benefits of self-growth.” 

The Grinch balloon will attempt to steal some holiday cheer in his first-ever appearance in the 91st Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, Nov. 23, 2017. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)
Why be a grinch? Bear with me. Discomfort can have its benefits. Getty Images/iStockphoto/2017

Long Version: How Discomfort Benefits My Christmas

Nowadays, Christmas has such an interfaith vibe. Culturally and in fact legally, it has become more of a national holiday than a religious one. A lot of “Whatever our beliefs or whether we even believe at all, we are all God’s children.” One big ohana.

But Christmas is not my holiday. I am Jewish. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus the son of God, while Jews don’t believe Jesus is a deity at all.

Really, though, the main difference is not so much about theology. It’s about differing memories. It’s about family history, your own stories and the holiday memories that have made the holiday part of — or not part of — your life.

My family did not celebrate the holiday. No tree, no tinsel, no gifts.  

We had lots of Christian friends and neighbors, but it was not a holiday for sharing. I never went to my friends’ houses to help decorate their tree or watch them open their presents. There were no interfaith gatherings at all.

The same was true with the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, which coincidentally falls around Christmas. No interfaith candle-lighting, latke-eating, dreidel-playing in any Jewish household I knew.

Christmas was theirs. Hanukkah was ours. Outcasting? Not an issue.

But, boy, did we celebrate Christmas at school. At school Jewish students were as much a part of Christmas as everyone else.   

Classrooms had Christmas trees. There were Christmas pageants. And we sang Christmas songs, every one of them no matter how religious the song was: “Christ Our Savior” from “Silent Night,” “Christ the Lord,” “O Holy Night.”  

Sacred earworms: I still know all the words.

Our parents were OK with this. It’s not that they saw this as deference. They just didn’t think it was a big deal. 

Still, my Jewish friends and I felt a little uncomfortable about those songs. So, we would sing them but only mouth the words that referred to Jesus. (Jewish-revised lyrics to “Silent Night: blank the Savior is born, blank the Savior is born.”)

Yet my mother was very proud when my kindergarten teacher chose me to sing “Silent Night,” in German no less, just four years after the end of the Holocaust.  

This was not about insensitivity or a breach of the separation between church and state. This was just school.

People gather in from of the Honolulu Hale to view the annual Christmas decorations on display for the holiday season on Friday, December 10, 2021. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
People gather in front of Honolulu Hale to view the annual Christmas decorations on display for the holiday season. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2021

Discomfort Management

Complicated? Hypocritical? Not really. It was life, and it was fine. I never felt left out, but I sure knew I was different. In a good way, or at least in a way I did not worry about. 

Call it discomfort management. We were in, were out, we didn’t care except some times. It’s amazing how much those Christmases, especially our skip-the-Jesus song strategies continue to poke their heads up and define me.  

Christmas today is so different, so much more in your face. It feels more secular, yet there is so much more angst about how to celebrate it. Too religious, not religious enough.

Because of changes in the law public school children are more likely to sing the Russian national anthem or “Louie, Louie,” than “Silent Night.” 

And there are many more interfaith marriages between Jews and Christians, resulting in all kinds of negotiations and hybrid solutions regarding Christmas celebrations.  

There are enormous amounts of self-help material for couples trying to get their children through these interfaith yuletide minefields. 

More blending and more boundaries at the same time. More self-consciousness in some ways, less in others.

On the surface, Christmas parties now are basically escapes from these rules and this angst — let the good times roll with sushi, eggnog and winking lights. 

But below the surface they are something else: multiple, diverse layers of memories and stories about past Christmases, differences between now and then.

At these parties my own Jewish-in-the-1950s experiences make me outside the circle looking in. It can be uncomfortable. This discomfort works for me at Christmas just as it works for me in Hawaii generally.

Christmas in Hawaii memorializes my own experiences as I mix with the experiences of others. They sing carols while I stand back, remembering the words I no longer feel comfortable singing even with those old grade school variations.

Why not forget the memories and join the crowd? Because I embrace the tension between being part of the fray in some ways and not part of it in others — this exposure to others while trying to be true to myself. Yet I have a good time along with everyone else.

Having a good time in the present while remembering your past — such an important way for me to live in Hawaii.

The writer Sarah Menkedick says that the tension that comes from being an outsider “can create a friction that reduces complacency,” which forces a person to “think and work harder, pay closer attention, take more care, consider herself and her own positioning much more critically.” 

As I said when I wrote that earlier column about outsider-ness, if I say I am lucky to live Hawaii, living with that friction and heightened awareness is the reason why. 

The discomfort is where my sense of belonging comes from.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

"When in Hawai'i, Do as Hawaiians Do." Enjoy the Makahiki and you will feel comfortable all the way to late February. Lonoikamahakihi!

eolamauno · 5 months ago

Your analysis of the benefits of discomfort are right on. I find it sad that a lot of parents want to get books out of school libraries because they might make their kids feel uncomfortable. Being an outsider (Jews at Christmas, Haole in Hawai'i, the nerdy (skinny, fat, short etc.) kid in school etc. ), is part of being a human being. Thank you for your thoughtful piece

Robo · 5 months ago

The strength of a native/dominant people's preference in favor of immigrants' cultural assimilation or cultural diversity will depend on how old, and thus how well consolidated and historically rooted, a sense of common national identity is in the host country/polity. Basically, the more secure that their culture can withstand the changes brought by diverse new cultural practices the more accepting they are of the differences. The doctrine of the necessary internal unity of the polity dictates that for the polity to continue to survive and thrive, they must all be unified by *something greater*. In your case it was school, in other cases national identity like being unified Americans first and foremost. Conversely, the sooner you adapt to the American diet the less healthy you'll be and the sooner you'll die -statistically speaking - compared to the people who bring their dietary preferences from elsewhere. So back away from the egg nog and Christmas cookies and stick with the latkes and kugel.

Frank_DeGiacomo · 5 months ago

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