God Bless You. Or Not.

Safe home!

Life is dangerous. Our travels can be hazardous in bad weather. We get sick and injured. We get our hearts broken. We get tides of bad luck when everything goes wrong. We do not have a nice weekend. We suffer and die.

Get well soon!

The language of blessing gives voice to our need to comfort others, to marshal the forces of goodness and healing in the universe to stand between those we love and the harm which must, sooner or later, befall them. We weave a shelter of words and intentions for health, safety, protection, and luck around them, hoping it will be enough, knowing it won’t.

I’m thinking of you.

Religious believers have ready-made blessings. Some friendly evangelical Christians I knew when I was a teenager used “God bless you” both as a parting greeting and as an all-purpose blessing for any need. Jews have different blessings for hundreds of purposes: for eating particular kinds of foods, for seeing a rainbow, for the healing of the sick, for the safety of travellers, for putting on new clothes, and yes, even for the czar. Quakers use the beautiful, poetic expression, “I hold you in the Light” to friends in need or distress.


Secular people, whether atheist, agnostic, or just reserved about their religion, have awkward, unsatisfying substitutes for blessings. Some are ungrammatical (what, please, is the subject of “Safe home”?), or lack agency (“Best wishes!”), or simply sound hollow (“Good luck,” as Holden Caulfield observes, is just depressing). They promise too much (“Have a great vacation!”) or too little (“Have a pleasant afternoon!”). They lack the poetry of “The Lord make His face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” Namaste sounds musical, and some yoga teachers translate it creatively, but since it is Sanskrit for no more and no less than “I bow to you,” it doesn’t really qualify. What we say because we cannot say “God bless you” comforts neither the blesser nor the blessed.

Happy Holidays!

You know you’re living in crazy times when the choice of saying “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” can start a fight.  It seems silly to argue over something as unimportant as a greeting. But are those greetings, or blessings? Blessings can be worth fighting over. Ask Esau.

God Jul! (Good Yule!)

What we celebrate at this time of year, believers and non-believers alike, is the hope of survival. The celebration of the winter solstice, or Yule, is older than Christmas, older than Hanukkah, perhaps older than civilization itself.  We kindle flames, feast on fattening foods, sing, drink, play games, give gifts to each other and to the poor. We have done so forever, since before either the birth of Jesus of Nazareth or the victory of Judah Maccabee. When the sun barely appears, when darkness and cold oppress and frighten, when snow and ice hide the life-giving earth, humans need a holiday that promises light, warmth, safety in numbers, food, and the return, someday, of summer.

Yule, no matter what retailers do to make it all about consumerism, or Bill O’Reilly does to make it all about politics, speaks to a human need so deep that it has survived artificial light, central heating, and the year-round availability of strawberries. It has survived Oliver Cromwell, A Very Brady Christmas and those dogs that bark Jingle Bells. It has survived Hanukkah bushes, frozen latkes (are you people kidding?), and that gigantic Chabad menorah on Fifth Avenue. It will survive the War on Christmas and the secularization of public life in the United States. Yule is too large, too profound, too necessary to perish.

God bless us, every one!

So, bless me any way you want. Wish me a Merry Christmas or a Happy Hanukkah, God Jul, or Happy Holidays, or even a Safe Home (whatever that means), and I will wish you the same. When I am sick or sad or in danger, bless me with the aid of the God or gods of your choice, or none.  I will be grateful for whatever blessing you offer.

And I, in turn, will hold you in the Light.

God Jul!
Bonus track:

About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon and In the Meat Department: A Novel, one of which may even be published someday! She is a former candidate for New York State Senate and Rockland County Legislature, and would be only too happy to tell you all about it. You could at one time follow her on Twitter, but she's done with that all that now. Please connect with her on Mastodon instead: https://social.coop/@Julie Mastodon
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12 Responses to God Bless You. Or Not.

  1. Larry Seiler says:

    Nice post. The common theme beneath all of the blessings seems to be “I care about you”. And that can be a powerful thing to say or to hear.

    I use “Happy Holidays” a lot at this time of year because most people celebrate two holidays. I tend to reserve “Merry Christmas” for those whom I think might celebrate it as a religious holiday, not to avoid offending people but to avoid debasing the coinage, as it were. I love the Quaker blessing. I gather that the Navaho use “walk in beauty” as a blessing. Especially at this time of year, I often end personal messages as follows:

    Peace and joy,

  2. Peace and joy–yes! Who can argue with that?

  3. I love this. It’s tiring sometimes to argue over what to say or what not to say. I have taken a cue from a friend on FB and decided that I will accept whatever blessing is offered and offer the same one back. It is indeed all about holding each other in the light – of love, of God, of Source, of whatever word we use to sustain ourselves. Beautifully written!

  4. devonette says:

    I have tried so many times to express what you have just said, but have never been able to put it into words that come across as intended. You’ve phrased it so perfectly and beautifully! Peace and happiness be with you and yours, Julie! Good Yule!!

  5. Ruth Hansen says:

    I liked reading the responses almost as much as the article. One more point of view – for context, coming from someone who is working at a Catholic college and cantors within that denomination – I see “Merry Christmas” as expressing good wishes within kind of a secular Christianity. It’s a well wishing around a holiday which is based in Christianity. To those whom I know reverence it in a deeply relgious sense, I might wish them a blessed Christmas. For me, personally, wishing Merry Christmas is sending someone good wishes within the context of my cultural expectations. Much as I would happily and humbly receive well-wishes within the words of other religious or ethnic expectations, that is how I send the well-wishes with a “Merry Christmas.” It also has overtones of cheer, which I like. Cheer, holly, mulled wine – all of this. These are things I am happy to wish friends and people of good will regardless of religious flavor. To me, Happy Holidays falls flat by comparison, but I do use it sometimes because I know that by some people, “Merry Christmas” is not received as I intend it; and, my intention, in any situation where any of these phrases would be used, is rarely to give offense!

    I would wish that any expression of good wishes might be received as such.

    Please feel free to wish me happiness and joy within any context you please. I enjoy variety and treasure your willingness to include me in whatever is meaningful to you.

    • Larry Seiler says:

      Nice comment & a nice way to use “Merry Christmas”. In my observation, the problems with “Merry Christmas” don’t come from the people who use it or the people who hear it — they come from people who demand that others use it! Which in my view rather misses the point of wishing someone a Merry Christmas.

      Enjoy, Larry

  6. Ruth Hansen says:

    P.S. Happy Groundhog’s Day.

  7. naomusings says:

    On a related note, I never know what to do when someone asks for prayers. As in (per Facebook), “Please keep my two-year-old son in your prayers. He’s having eye surgery today.” As an agnostic, do I (1) pray as requested, although I don’t feel any certainty that there’s anyone listening, (2) not pray but lie about it, as i don’t want to hurt the feelings of this nice person who has specifically asked for prayer for her poor sweet child, or (3) just offer her love and concern? I usually do #3, but feel weird about it.

    Best holiday wishes to you and your family!!

  8. Pingback: A Jewish Christmas | Magnificent Nose

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