It’s starting again… the annual arguments about “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays.” Having grown up in multicultural New York City, I can’t believe this is even an issue, a topic that causes arguments and warrants discussions, but apparently it is. I’ve seen Facebook discussions and memes posted, I’ve heard people talking about it, so I might as well put in my two cents here. The funny thing is that I actually do celebrate Christmas (albeit secularly), because my husband was raised Catholic and we wanted to keep some of his traditions in our family. But everything I’m saying here still stands for me, because I’m Jewish, and Christmas is not really my holiday. It applies even more to people who don’t celebrate Christmas at all.
For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to assume that you, the reader, are not a Fox news- watching bigot who thinks that Christianity is the only true path and that there is actually a war on Christmas. I’m going to assume that anyone reading this is fine with people believing in religions other than Christianity, and that you never use the phrase “creeping Sharia” un-ironically.
You just don’t see what the big deal is with saying “Merry Christmas.” It’s what you’re used to, what you’ve always said. And hey, you’re nice enough to offer a holiday greeting at all- shouldn’t we non-Christians just be gracious and accept it? Shouldn’t we just stop being so picky, so over-sensitive, and assume that you have good intentions?
Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but in general, I do try to be polite when people wish me a Merry Christmas. It bothers me, but I’m not going to create a scene at the Walmart checkout or start lecturing the Salvation Army bell-ringer. And good intentions are lovely, but they’re not all that matters, and let’s face it- if you really have good intentions, you will take into account the feelings of the person you’re talking to. You will remember that your holiday wishes are not about you; they are about others. If you’re going to bother saying something nice for the holidays, make sure it’s something that truly is nice- something that’s kind and respectful towards the recipient, something that’s about the joy you want them to experience and not just about what’s easiest for you. When you wish me a Merry Christmas, you are assuming that I am Christian (and we all know what happens when you assume). You are centering your own perspective and experience, and ignoring mine. You are making Christianity the default. That’s not about me, and it doesn’t make my Chanukah, or any other day during the holiday season, happier.
Perhaps you don’t see what the big deal is. After all, you wouldn’t be offended if someone wished you a Happy Chanukah or a blessed Yule. I probably wouldn’t be offended, either, if once in a blue moon someone said something to me that centered Christianity as the default. The problem is that non-Christians in most Western countries experience some form of this every day of our lives. Christmas and Easter are national holidays. No mail, no school, government offices closed. That’s not the case with other religions. Our holidays aren’t national holidays. We’re lucky if we get those days off from work or school, and when we do it’s usually because we specifically asked for them. Often, school or work events are scheduled during our holidays, because it doesn’t even occur to organizers to check the calender for non-Christian holidays. Outside of large metropolitan areas, it’s often difficult to find the foods and objects we need for our religious rituals. Most pop culture that involves holidays focuses on Christian holidays. Christmas music, Christmas and Easter specials on TV… it’s only in the past 5-10 years that children’s books about Chanukah, Passover, and Kwanzaa have been widely available, and I’ve never seen any for Muslim, Hindu, pagan, or other holidays in mainstream bookstores.
I could go on and on, listing the myriad ways non-Christian religions are erased from the public awareness, but I’ll stop with this very incomplete list. My point is that when our identity is erased and ignored as a matter of course, having it be ignored again in someone’s holiday wishes is just one more micro-aggression we have to endure. It’s truly exhausting sometimes.
And here’s the thing: “Happy Holidays” is all-inclusive. You don’t have to worry about saying the specific holiday greeting correctly or what to do for someone who doesn’t celebrate any holidays at this time of year. And you’re not erasing Christmas. Christmas is included in “Happy Holidays.” You know what else is included? New Year’s! Poor New Year’s, the holiday almost everyone celebrates but everyone forgets about when saying “Merry Christmas.” “Happy Holidays” covers all bases. It respects everyone’s religious customs. Even if someone doesn’t celebrate any religious holiday at this time of year, “Happy Holidays” wishes them joy for the entire season and for the New Year.
This holiday season, I hope that you are surrounded by the love of family and friends. I hope that you find joy in traditions old and new. I hope you get great presents, and I hope you experience the pleasure of giving presents. Also, unless you are sure that someone celebrates only Christmas, I hope you wish people a “Happy Holidays!”