The greeting seems harmless enough on the surface. It has a nice ring to it. The phrase is cheerfully uttered by grocery clerks at the checkout line, in fancy gold script on holiday cards, in carols blasting from the car radio.
Coworkers exchange “Merry Christmas” like they exchange unusable white elephant gifts at the office holiday party. But let’s be honest. It’s really an office Christmas party, not a holiday one. There’s nary a Jewish menorah among the Christmas trees and jingle bells decking the office halls.
The argument has often been made in defense of “Merry Christmas.” That Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’s birthday and that purpose shouldn’t be disguised in more secular well wishes like “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings.” The argument has been made that “Merry Christmas” is a pleasant well wish that should be inoffensive to anyone.
This position makes sense when speaking to exclusively Christmas-celebrating Christians but alienates those who practice other religions and the none religious, atheists and agnostics, among others.
As the child of a Jewish-raised agnostic father and a Catholic-raised agnostic mother, I am aware of the broad spectrum of situations when it comes to religion and lack thereof. Because of this awareness, I will not wish you a “Merry Christmas” and I will discourage my children from wishing you a “Merry Christmas” as well. I will encourage my children to wish you a “Happy Holidays” if the greeting seems appropriate.
“Happy Holidays” isn’t a “Merry Christmas” with stage fright, scared to come out to center stage dressed in its red and green glittery tutu and oversized hair bow. “Happy Holidays” is a seasonal greeting that welcomes you whether you recognize any holidays among Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, or a combination of these.
Saying “Happy Holidays,” or sending a greeting card that says “Season’s Greetings,” is an acknowledgment that whatever your practices and beliefs, you matter.
“Happy Holidays” is also a promise not to push your practices and beliefs on someone else.
“Happy Holidays” doesn’t presume to know the nuances of your beliefs and practices. My family celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah, and we are proud to in turn set up the Christmas tree and light the menorah at Hanukkah. My husband’s mother is Mexican-American, and we enjoy tamales during the holidays and singing the Spanish folk song “De Colores.” Our culture is rich and complicated, as I know is the culture and history of other families.
Especially as our country grows more diverse, as more of our children and our children’s classmates encompass a mix of cultures and ethnicities, I want my children to be sensitive to respecting these differences.
My mission of inclusivity is hampered by the tunnel-vision focus on Christmas in public school. Each day, my 5-year-old comes home from elementary school with piles of Christmas crafts. A Santa covered in cotton balls holding my son’s gift wish list. Popsicle stick ornaments still wet with paint. Construction paper stockings and more damned construction paper stockings. Always Christmas. In public school.
Certainly, not all the students celebrate Christmas. Certainly all the students don’t celebrate just Christmas during the winter season. I wish the crafts, activities and education in public schools included a range of cultural themes during the holidays. What a great opportunity to learn about different cultures and holidays in a fun way!
Sure, saying “Merry Christmas” to someone who you know celebrates Christmas and would welcome the greeting makes sense. But do you really know that family doesn’t also celebrate Hanukkah? Do you know the family isn’t Muslim or Buddhist?
Of course, even “Happy Holidays” should be used with caution. Maybe the person you’re delivering the holiday wish to has recently experienced the death of a loved one. Maybe the person doesn’t celebrate any holidays. In that case, a simple “I’m thinking of you” might be better.
Really, the message I want to share with my kids is to be considerate during the holiday season and always. We are one, but we are different. Let’s respect those differences.