“All of us take pride and pleasure in the fact that we are unique, but I’m afraid that when all is said and done the police are right: it all comes down to fingerprints.” –David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice
“Merry Christmas!!!” “Happy Hanukkah!!!” “Happy Kwanzaa!!!” “Happy New Year!!!” “Happy Holidays!!!” It is certainly a festive time of the year in this part of the world, even if we are celebrating different things. So, which one do you say when you greet someone or bid farewell these days? Does it matter? This time of the year, I always begin to wonder.
In recent years, as the world (hopefully) creeps toward greater tolerance and inclusiveness of difference, I have noticed it become more common to hear “Happy Holidays!” or “Seasons Greetings!” in advertisements or greetings. Good old “Merry Christmas” seems to be losing its fashion in many settings. When my daughter’s Girl Scout troop went to a senior citizen center to sing carols, I noticed that the set list was loaded with secular songs (“Frosty the Snowman”, “Jingle Bells”, and the like) and empty of actual “Christmas songs” like “Away in a Manger” or “Silent Night”. I cannot imagine that would have been the case when I was growing up. There seems to be change in the air. Is it simply us becoming more politically correct, or is it something more?
I don’t know if my house is a good example, but it’s the one I know best, so here is what I can tell you from this spot on the planet. My greeting to others at my work and in the world is typically “Happy Holidays!” I very rarely wish someone a “Merry Christmas” unless I am certain that they are Christian and celebrate Christmas. I try to be aware of the language I use, and I do my best to communicate thoughtfully, especially to those I do not know.
One of my favorite annual traditions is the receiving of “Christmas Cards”. I have always loved returning to my parents’ home for the holidays and settling into the sofa for a couple of hours with the basket that houses the enormous collection of Christmas cards and letters. I read all about my extended family and old family friends that I grew up with. I am deeply nostalgic by nature, so I adore this trip down Memory Lane. I have done my best to keep up the tradition, sending out a card and letter each year almost on time for Christmas. I don’t call ours a “Christmas card”, though, at least not to myself or to my wife and kids. To us, it’s a “Holiday card” (which makes it okay when it’s late for Christmas, right?). In recent years, the photo printing companies have really jumped on the bandwagon of inclusivity, so we get to choose one of the options that reads “Peace on Earth”, “Oh What Fun”, or this year’s choice, “May Your Days Be Merry”. I hope that choices like this land well with everyone who receives our card. The letter intentionally does not mention Christmas, though certainly most of the people who receive it are Christians. Most. Not all. And I have no wish to exclude anyone with my language.
In perusing Facebook lately and seeing what people are sharing and what type of comments they are making, I have noticed a fascinating trend: a backlash against my type of political correctness (I like to think of it as simple respect or inclusion, but what do I know?). I have seen angry, bitter comments from people demanding to “reclaim Christmas” in schools and public settings, or feeling like their freedom to say “Merry Christmas” has been infringed upon by all of this politically correct nonsense, to the point that they are supposed to feel guilty for broadcasting Christmas wishes to the world. The partnering themes seem to be “Keep Christ in Christmas!” and “This is America, and that means we celebrate Christmas!” My favorite Facebook meme in response to these angry, defensive claims was one that read, “Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done to you.” Hmmm. That sounds both productive and logical (which means that most of us will ignore it).
I guess I am unsure if non-Christians take any offense to hearing “Merry Christmas” all the time or not. I, for one, do not. I understand that the intent of most people saying “Merry Christmas” (or “Happy Hannukah” or “Happy Easter”) is not to convert me to their religion but rather to simply spread some cheer in the way they learned to do that. I am a fan of spreading cheer, after all. Sure, I could intellectually say to myself, “Why are you evangelizing about your religion when you don’t have a clue as to what I believe?” But it is feels easier—and more forgiving, frankly—to just roll with it.
And let’s face it: although Christmas gets a lot of folks into church who don’t often go, it has become a much bigger secular holiday than it has a religious one. If we polled a million people off the street—even if it was a million Christians—I would be willing to bet that if we asked them, “What is the first thing that comes to your mind when I say ‘Christmas’?” far more people would say “Santa” than “Jesus”. I am not at all suggesting that Christians should forget the origin of the holiday—indeed, I wish they would follow the message of that Facebook meme even more—but I would say that it is okay to admit that Christmas has become mostly a secular celebration. We spend months and moneys buying presents, and then we get together to eat, drink, and be merry. It is a good thing.
And for those who feel like they need some ethical ammunition in order to keep saying “Merry Christmas” to every stranger they meet, admitting that it has become a secular holiday, ironically, gives you just that support. Think about it: if we just came to see Christmas in the same light as we see Halloween, for example, you could greet folks with a “Merry Christmas” and think nothing of it. It is only when we both 1) cling to Christmas as a religious day, a day primarily to honor Jesus, and 2) press our demands to use “Merry Christmas” without an awareness of our audience, that it becomes a problem of arrogance and Christian privilege. Because there is still some denial, debate, and confusion about the first issue, I choose to steer clear of the second.
All of this is just a roundabout way of saying that my hope for all of you at this time of the year is that you celebrate joyfully and safely, and that you do so with an awareness that, while we are all part of this wonderful unity called the human race, we are also each unique in our beliefs and traditions. In the coming days, I will celebrate Christmas, Kwanzaa, and the New Year, and I will bid a Happy Hanukkah to my Jewish friends. My cousin-in-law, Justin Data, recently wrote a blog in which he invented a new holiday called “Gluttonmirthen” that encompasses the entire span between Thanksgiving and New Years Day, aptly named because that period is both joyful and completely gluttonous. Now that is inclusive (and seriously, how fun is it to say “Happy Gluttonmirthen!”? I’m just sayin’.)! And while I will go on wishing everyone “Happy Holidays” and spreading good cheer, I will try to remind myself that this is not “the holiday season” for everyone; it is simply a time when a lot of my holidays come in rapid succession. So, I say to you, whenever your favorite or most holy holidays fall on the calendar, “HAPPY EVERYTHING!!!” It is all good to me.
How about you? Are you celebrating a favorite holiday this time of year? Open up your journal and write about what makes it so important to you. Does it make you nostalgic for your youth or for family members that are no longer with you? Is it a religious or secular holiday, or a bit of each? If it blends the two, which part do you prefer: the secular or the religious? Are you at all offended when someone wishes you a “Merry ________________” if you don’t celebrate whatever is in that blank? Do you think others have a right to be offended or feel oppressed by the majority trying to make everyone celebrate the majority group’s holiday? How do you greet people hello or goodbye at this time of the year? Do you say it unconsciously, or do you choose your greeting with care and consideration for your audience? Do you think you should? Is it enough to “mean well” or at least “mean no harm” by your greeting–no matter what you say–or should you work harder to understand the impact of your words before you say them? Which way do you lean on this issue: are we all just being too sensitive about this stuff, or is it time for a major shift in consciousness to bring about some long-neglected inclusion? Leave me a reply and let me know: Is it time to just say, “HAPPY EVERYTHING!”?
Be what you want the world to be,