I'm always touched.

Acquaintances stammer - avert their eyes - and then blurt out something like "Enjoy your holiday, too," when I wish them a Merry Christmas.

"My" holiday's already come and gone. It's called Hanukkah, a minor one on the Jewish calendar, and a blip on the Jewish holiday radar screen, a pleasant but second-string festival. It's not the "Jewish Christmas."

But here we are, a multicultural society, still struggling to understand one another's ways. And sometimes, we need road maps to guide us.

I'll never forget the neighbor, back in the days when we were all suburban pioneers, who was horrified that our children were "deprived" of Christmas.

We could share so much as homesteaders, fighting crabgrass and learning the ropes of our new community together. We could compare notes on everything from potty-training to pot roasts.

But this woman simply could not comprehend why our three unfortunate daughters were deprived of that childhood rite of passage, a visit to - and from - Santa Claus. Her kids made that ritual visit to the local department store called Pomeroy's. They got dressed up and had their pictures taken.

And yes, it all seemed so glorious to three little Jewish girls who had no such excursion.

After all, what would be the harm of a little Christmas tree? this neighbor always mused. Not one of those towering ones, just something small and simple for the kids? She always invited our "deprived" little ones to see her family's tree, and that was fine. The tough part was when they came home to our treeless world. For a while there, I know our kids felt more deprived than ever.

I also know our neighbor meant well. I understand that her heart went out to Jill, Amy, and Nancy, who may as well have been Dickens urchins, so dreadful was their lot in life.

And you can bet that those daughters of ours caught right on, and clamored for the best of both worlds: A little Hanukkah and a little Christmas would have delighted them back in the days when Christmas envy was rampant.

And not just for them.

There were years when I felt our difference keenly, when Christmas was a lonely, almost melancholy time. After all, ours was the only house in the neighborhood without Christmas lights, and it always looked so forlorn in the wonderland of sparkle and glitter.

Our kids had no post-Christmas tales of stockings filled with candy canes and gaily wrapped gifts. There was no caroling around the piano.

There was, in fact, no Christmas at all at our house, a quite conscious decision, especially as our daughters got older and began establishing stronger Jewish identities. We wanted them to know certainty, not ambivalence. We wanted them to embrace their Judaism, even in December, when being different can be daunting.

Was it easy? Hardly.

Is it now? Yes - and no.

A movie and then some Chinese food is balm for the Jewish soul. Every comedian capitalizes on what has become that iconic Christmas Day for so many Jewish families.

There are alternatives. One year, we joined members of our synagogue and volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House in Camden, so staffers could have at least a part of the holiday off. It felt wonderful.

We recognize that as American Jews, we are both insiders and outsiders. In December, we're reminded that we live in a predominantly Christian country as a distinct minority.

But we also know - and so do our children and grandchildren - how truly blessed we are to breathe free as non-Christians. Our ancestors were hardly as fortunate.

So as Christmas swirls around us, I sometimes feel the old ghosts of discomfort. It happens when the lady at the dry cleaners starts wishing me a Merry Christmas - and then stops herself in horror.

"It's OK," I tell her. "I'm not offended."

And I'm not.

Maybe this political-correctness thing has gone too far. We are so fearful of trampling on one another's sensibilities that a simple greeting becomes a minefield, and the word Christmas is suddenly fraught with anxiety.

My Jewish friends do not recoil at the word, let alone the beautiful holiday. It's just not ours.

Being Jewish at Christmas is not a misfortune. It's a privilege, a lifelong gift, a taproot.

So wish me a belated Happy Hanukkah - or a Merry Christmas. I won't flinch.

I'll probably just say thank you.

Because in a world that's not always loving, I'll take my good will however it comes.

Contact Sally Friedman