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I love my friends who “want to put Christ back in Christmas,” and I honor their viewpoint. I grew up with strong Catholic roots, and I love celebrating the birthday of Jesus. But I don’t think saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” necessarily does the trick of what’s at the heart of that Christ in Christmas expression—making people act more Christ-like or more aware of the religious roots of the season.
In fact, it can have the exact opposite effect. I am rarely this blunt, but I have to say it. In certain contexts, “Merry Christmas” is rude. It alienates Jews, Muslims, and practitioners of a variety of other religions or beliefs other than Christian. In a not so subtle way, it imposes your viewpoint on other people by just assuming they share it. “Happy Holidays” acknowledges the vast number of faiths that exist and respects a person’s right not to believe at all. It says, “Whatever you celebrate or don’t, I wish you well during this time of year where there’s a surge in generosity of spirit.”
Let’s put this in perspective. No one wants to inhibit your freedom to say Merry Christmas at church, among fellow Christians at home or in any other setting, except those that are more public where people of all faiths converge. If you know someone is Christian, “Merry Christmas” the right thing to say. “Happy Chanukah” is the appropriate greeting for someone who’s Jewish. Happy Solstice is a good bet for your favorite agnostic.
But out and about, where you might not know someone’s spirituality or lack thereof—that’s another story. Here’s an empathy experiment. Imagine you’re Christian and you just landed on a planet where Christianity is not the norm. It’s a festive time of year and people are shouting (pick one) Happy Chanukah, Allah Be Praised, or Atheists Rock! No one acknowledges your beliefs, and you feel like a lonely petunia in an onion patch. If your beliefs are close to your heart, this can be painful and isolating. At best, it is hurtful or irritating; at worst, when done consistently, it contributes to an intimidating atmosphere where people do not feel safe to share themselves. Beliefs reflect the core of who we are.
How little it takes to acknowledge and celebrate diversity.
When “Happy Holidays” first became the politically correct greeting, I, too, resented it. I felt like a lifetime of celebrating the season in a way that wove religion, spiritual perspective, and general goodwill had been forcibly replaced by something that sounded secular and cold. It took me a long time to get the point. We are free to “talk amongst ourselves” in a very candid way in any homogenous group, but once we mix it up, we have to consider the comfort of others. It’s the Golden Rule. It’s the teaching of Jesus at his best, and I daresay of the prophets from any number of other religions.
Inclusiveness is the epitome of Christianity. Jesus ministered to the fringe of society—the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised. This loving kindness and welcoming is reflected in the beliefs of many other paths up the mountain. I appreciate that there are those who believe in their heart of hearts that their faith is the one and only way to salvation. But out in the world, it’s not OK with me—or a lot of other people—to emphasize it. Religion can be even more divisive than politics and this time of year, especially, we need to focus on the love in which we’re all joined. There will never be peace on earth unless we learn to stand comfortably in our beliefs while respecting each other’s unique way of seeing things.
Lastly, we are wrong to assume that saying “Happy Holidays” is secular or implies a person whose only interest in December is shopping and the presents she receives. As one of my friends recently reminded me, the word “holiday” is derived from “holy day.” You can make the winter celebrations more ecumenical or universal, but you can’t deny their roots. Many people would be surprised to know that the Christian holiday traditions drew heavily from pre-existing pagan practices. The original “Christians” were Jews before they split into two separate faiths. The simple expression, “Happy Holidays,” has a lot more togetherness behind it than meets the eye. The degree to which that’s true depends on the mind and heart of the person saying it.
Let’s try a collective experiment. The next time you say “Happy Holidays,” make it an open-minded, open-hearted outpouring of goodwill and the only true gift anyone you can give anyone—to love them just the way they are.
Photo credit: +EPS WORLD RELIGIONS, DOVE © Casejustin
This post is a reprint from my blog, Hot Flashbacks, Cool Insights, originally published on 10-Dec-09.