Friday, November 25, 2011

I don't care if you say "Happy Holidays"

It's funny that my opinion is even controversial.

I just keep hearing that people are upset because the store clerk wished them "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas." And I really don't see the big deal.

You see, if I bumped into an atheist or a Muslim or a Jew on Christmas, I wouldn't want to be rude and say "Merry Christmas." That's like saying, "Enjoy your dinner" to the waitress at a restaurant. She's not eating. You are. And if someone isn't celebrating Christmas, why wish them a happy one?

But most people celebrate some kind of holiday between late November and early January. There's Thanksgiving, St. Nicholas Day, St. Lucy's Day, Christmas, Hannukah, Eid (depending on the year -- not this one), Winter Solstice, Boxing Day, St. Stephen's Day, New Year's Day, and Epiphany. I don't know which particular grab-bag of days you choose to celebrate. But it's a safe bet that you celebrate at least some of them. So, happy holidays.

I say Merry Christmas, very happily, to people I know celebrate it. Sometimes I just say it to strangers because most of them are likely to celebrate Christmas. But if I ran a business, I'd probably just say happy holidays to my customers to make sure I hit on something they actually want me to say to them.

I mean, saying Merry Christmas is about spreading goodwill. It's not a political act. And if it is offensive to some people, if it makes them feel left out, if they just don't want to me say it, it's not exactly going to spread goodwill to them, is it? It's not actually going to make them have a merry Christmas. It's just going to make them have a grumpy Hannukah.

The same goes for Christmas trees, Santa, and "Christmas" carols (you know, the kind that doesn't mention Jesus?). These are secular symbols of a secular holiday, which happens (like the feast celebrating Christ's birth) to be called Christmas. If people want to call it a holiday tree rather than a Christmas tree, why should I object? There's nothing intrinsic to it that makes a tree a Christian symbol. If a Muslim wants to do Santa with her family, why should I care? So long as no one tells me I'm a hypocrite because I claim to be Catholic and yet hang mistletoe, which was adopted ages and ages ago from paganism. There's nothing intrinsically pagan about mistletoe.

I admit that I celebrate both a religious Christmas (nativity scene, midnight Mass, Advent, O Antiphons, Epiphany) and a secular Christmas (gifts, tree, lights, "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," stockings, candy canes). It doesn't bother me if other people celebrate a secular-only Christmas, or no Christmas at all. If you're not crashing into my house, tearing down my lights and tree, I don't see how it's any skin off my nose. I don't like having to listen to "Grandma Ran Over By a Reindeer," though. So do us all a favor and keep that on your headphones.

I know a lot of people like to say we're really a Christian nation. But what does that even mean? We have no official religion. We CAN'T have an official religion -- it's in our founding documents, and for a good reason. The founding fathers wanted to make a place where people of all religions could come and interact as equals. Yes, many of them were Christian. Many of them were also Freemasons. But we're not a Masonic nation. We are, for better or worse, a pluralistic nation. We generally agree that we were made by a higher power and that it does us good to give thanks to that power (hence Thanksgiving, In God We Trust, and so forth), but not everyone here thinks that, and our tradition is to respect their belief (or lack thereof). Of course I would love for everyone to be Christians. But I don't want them converting just because they're tired of being snubbed for being something else ... if that even worked, which I've never heard of it doing. If we wanted to force this country to be Christian, we would have to rustle up a much more serious persecution than insisting people say "Merry Christmas."

Maybe I'm too young to see it. I wasn't raised the 50's where everyone was Christian, or if they weren't, they kept their mouths shut about it. I was raised in a world that, from my point of view, is actively hostile to my beliefs. Pornography is forbidden by my religion, but it's everywhere. Church-going is mandated, but many people have no choice but to work Sundays. The culture, as a whole, is not at all Christian. And, though most people in this country do believe in God and the Bible, I have never found it safe to assume that a random person I meet shares a single opinion of mine. (Being raised Catholic in Seattle is good training for this, I suppose.)

I never thought of this country as a Christian nation. Medieval England? That was a Christian nation. Renaissance Italy? Ditto. But I always drew a lot more parallels between our time and the time of the ancient Romans. (Any of my Latin students will tell you so.) True, we are not actively persecuted, except perhaps here or there when we run for public office or quote Scripture in a public school. But we're not supported either. We are just trying to do our thing, while surrounded by people who are doing something else. We don't let it get to us more than we can help. We shut our eyes at the Coliseum (so to speak) and we don't burn incense to Jupiter. We live the best lives we can and hope that someone will ask us why we're so happy or what gives us the strength to love our neighbor. Then we can tell them. That's why St. Paul said that we should "always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you a reason for your hope." He didn't say "Build a society so Christian that everyone else will feel isolated and awkward because they're not."

If I can better show Christ to others by saying "happy holidays" by saying "Merry Christmas," then I will do so. And I am well aware that those who say "happy holidays" aren't doing it so that they will "stick it to the Christians" and "prove that Christianity is no longer relevant." They're doing it because they are trying to say something that will make people happy without making anyone feel left out. Is that such a terrible thing?

Happy Feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria/Thanksgiving Leftover Day! (I refuse to wish you a happy Black Friday. There is nothing remotely happy about that quasi-holiday. I do not celebrate it, and honestly can't understand why people do. But, if you are celebrating it today, be safe and remember no sale is worth endangering yourself or others.)


Fidelio said...

This is funny (and interesting, nice post!) because I had almost the exact opposite thought about Christmas just the other day. Despite systematic attempts to make it a secular holiday, at the heart of it is really IS a Christian thing. Even the secular songs mention St. Nick, and you can't escape the religious origins of Santa Claus without putting him basically out of existence. Same thing with the wreaths (symbols of eternity, windows to heaven), candles, spices, trees, and everything else. Just because people don't know about the origin of things doesn't make them devoid of religious significance and meaning.

But make good points. "Happy Holidays" doesn't hurt my feelings, except for when I wonder if the clear meant it that way, or if they were just trying to avoid a lawsuit by saying the PC thing instead of what was in her heart.

Sarah said...

I completely agree with your take on the whole "Happy Holidays" issue; I too feel that it can be much more charitable depending on the situation to use that greeting than the undeniably Christian "Merry Christmas." The one I personally can't stand is "Season's Greetings," because it seems rather meaningless. Technically it could be applied to any season, really. I like Happy Holidays too because obviously "holiday" means "holy day," and so it's a good way to recognize the religious and spiritual nature of the various feasts that are being celebrated.

Sheila said...


Here's something I found on Facebook today that pretty much sums up the attitude I can't stand:


WHAT A CROCK OF SH*T..... We can't say "Merry Christmas" now ? We have to say "Happy Holidays". We can't call it a Christmas tree, it's now called a Holiday tree? Because it might offend someone. If you don't like our "Customs" and it offends you so much..... then LEAVE... I will help you pack. They are called customs, and we have our traditions ! If you... agree with this...please post this as your status!!... MERRY CHRISTMAS....


Gee, that really spreads the Christmas cheer. I'm sure that when I repost this on my wall, all my non-Christian friends will suddenly be filled with love for the Christ Child and inspired to go to Midnight Mass! NOT.

Instead I try to share my own joy in the wonderful holiday that I celebrate, and perhaps giggle a little bit inside as I watch people who don't believe in my religion celebrate little bits of it anyway. Maybe they, like me, will feel a sense of wonder while standing under a Christmas tree and ponder whether it means anything. Or just be prompted to buy a homeless person a Christmas ham. Is it so bad if people use "my" holiday to be kind to each other on? I don't think so.

Anonymous said...

I work with more than a few people who will be celebrating Pancha Ganapati this December. I like my colleagues. They like me. "Happy Holidays" seems to be in order, don't you think? : )

Sheila said...

Huh, I've never even heard of that holiday!

Hopeful In Alabama said...

Very refreshing post. I enjoyed it very much. Wish more people would adopt this attitude during the holidays.

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