Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas?

This shouldn’t be hard. If you’re an atheist, and you greet somebody who you know is a practicing Christian, decorum would suggest that you say “merry Christmas.” If you’re a Christian, and you know you’re greeting an atheist (or a non-Christian generally), decorum would suggest “happy holidays.”

Why? Because any friendly greeting is necessarily deferential to Otherness. It’s not about you. It’s an acknowledgment that, where we differ on matters religious, we nevertheless recognize and tolerate differences among us.

So whence the so-called war on Christmas? It’s about the resentment that those on the American right feel at the very notions of difference and tolerance.  They seek central pride of place to their religion as “normal” and don’t want to acknowledge the existence of diversity in their communities. They thus make the greeting about them and their happiness, not you and your happiness. It’s a form of selfishness; a lack of love and charity–all, ironically, in the name of Jesus.

It’s really that simple.

But what if you’re addressing, not an individual, but a mixed group of Christians and non-Christians? Again, this shouldn’t be hard. “Happy holidays” covers everyone. Or, as an alternative, you might say, “Merry Christmas to those who are Christians, and happy holidays to everyone else.” It’s about respect.

The alternative is religious conflict, which is captured magnificently in these lines from James Fenton’s great poem, “Jerusalem”:

It is superb in the air.
Suffering is everywhere
And each man wears his suffering like a skin.
My history is proud.
Mine is not allowed.
This is the cistern where all wars begin,
The laughter from the armoured car.
This is the man who won’t believe you’re what you are.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas?

  1. colinhutton says:

    Happy holidays Santi.

  2. Staffan says:

    I would love for you to apply this logic to Yom Kippur or Ramadan. This is not Christian exceptionalism but secular/liberal guilt-driven appeasement strategy, which by the way isn’t working that well because most people will respond by trying to exploit it, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-25488259

    “They thus make the greeting about them and their happiness, not you and your happiness.”

    Or they make it about Christmas because it’s…Christmas?

    “It’s really that simple.”

    Maybe it could be even more simple? Like if we refer to a holiday as Christmas when it actually is Christmas and as Yom Kippur when it actually is Yom Kippur the way we refer to snow as snow and to sunshine as sunshine?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      You’re sounding too essentialist to me, like the Thomist who says one must never use the penis for anything but vaginal intercourse because, well, it’s what God made a penis for.

      December is not the Christmas season for everybody. To someone you know is Jewish, you might say “Happy Hanukkah” without dissing Christians who are within earshot. And “happy holiday” is a covering term that doesn’t exclude Christmas.

      This is a manufactured controversy of Bill O’Reilly and Fox News. Christmas and Christians are not being dissed because I use a term of greeting that includes everybody.

      If I lived in an all Catholic country like Poland, I would still (personally) say that “happy holidays” is the better term because, even in a country where “everybody” is Christian, there are still some atheists, etc. Saying “happy holiday” acknowledges that there are people who dissent from the norm. It makes them not invisible to the psyches of those around them. And maybe that’s the issue. Religious conservatives like dissenters to stay in their closets; to not feel welcome or included in the public square. They don’t like to think about them. It spoils their happiness.

      • Staffan says:

        Yes, but you’re avoiding the inconsistency in singling out Christmas and thereby Christians. If you want to be hypersecular about it then it must surely apply equally to all.

        I think this idea that Christmas greeting is a form of oppression may be an indication of problems in the American society. We have plenty of atheists here in Sweden and when a Christian wishes them merry Christmas they say merry Christmas right back. In fact, they say merry Christmas to each other and take part of the celebrations, have their children walk in the Saint Lucia procession and so on. And no one feels offended. No ones happiness is spoiled.

        This American victimhood suggests that everyone sees other people as enemies and want to justify any current of future aggression towards outgroups. Even White liberals can achieve the attractive role of victimhood through atheism and claim that a cheerful “merry Christmas” is really a hostile act of oppression. We have this in Europe too, there is one group that shares your eagerness to feel offended: Muslims. And their violence is usually justified by this attitude. We have seen this many times before: first some group claims to be very offended, then the riots or war begin.

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