Hear Ye! Since 1998.
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Dec 09

Merry Christmas?

In America, people rarely say Merry Christmas like they do in Australia. Cards and greetings come in the more generic form of “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings”. The easy answer is that it’s the politically correct thing to do. There are significant numbers of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and those of other religions in the community who may or may not celebrate Christmas. The American public appears to have a lingering fear that wishing someone a Merry Christmas who doesn’t celebrate it will, at best, cause them to be corrected and, at worst, cause offence and earn a rebuke. But Australia has great diversity in its community as well. Is it just political correctness gone mad as usual in America?

Humour me and let’s deconstruct this state of affairs for a moment.

Our starting point is the identification of Christmas as the Christian holiday which celebrates the birth of Christ. It’s the biggest holiday on the Christian calendar. However, over the years the spirit of the holiday has bled over into the general community such that Christmas is also celebrated by non-Christians who partake in traditional Christmas customs like putting up Christmas trees and lights, gift-giving, family dinners, carols, and misleading small kids about Santa Claus. However, they leave out the religious customs like nativity plays and church services. As such, Christmas in these two contexts – the secular and the religious – still essentially refers to the same thing. It refers to the same date on the calendar, even though the nature of what is being celebrated is slightly different between Christians and non-Christians – the overall feel-good themes are celebrated by both, but Christians have the extra, significant religious element.

Of course, you will now point out that Christmas had roots in a pagan holiday. Although that may be the case, it’s more a case of Christians co-opting a pagan festival and renaming it and re-purposing it for their own celebratory goals. It’s not much different to non-Christians co-opting Christmas for their own purposes.

One distinction is that the secular re-purposing of Christmas didn’t really lead to many changes in the way it is celebrated by them. They didn’t rename it and they didn’t really change any of the customs. And there’s really nothing wrong with this.

On the other hand, there would be problems if Christians celebrated a pagan festival in a similar way because there are religious undertones that would be celebrated in the process, which is not kosher (to mix metaphors) from a religious point of view. Secular people don’t have the same constraints, which means any religious “baggage” that “encumbers” Christmas is not much of an issue for them.

So an orthodox Jew will not celebrate any version of Christmas (except what is jokingly referred to as — I have been told by a Jewish friend — a Jewish Christmas, which consists of Chinese food and a movie, since Chinese restauranteurs don’t take Christmas off, and the cinemas are one of the few other things that remain open on the 25th). A secular Jew may, however, celebrate Hannukah and put up a Christmas tree.

So, is it wrong to wish someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas a Merry Christmas? Should you give them gifts?

In relation to gifts, the custom is really gift-giving, not gift-receiving. So by giving a non-celebrant a gift, you’re technically not involving them in Christmas as you would be if you made them belt out a few verses of Hark! the Herald Angels Sing. It’s analogous to donating gifts to charities for the homeless and destitute.

And if a version of Christmas has now formed which is secular, wishing someone a Merry Christmas – whether they celebrate it or not – should be okay because it is secular, which is similar to Thanksgiving. However, this might be a little touchy with other religions because the religious undertones of Christmas are still present. So maybe there is a valid argument to be made for being sensitive about who you wish Merry Christmas to.

However, the other side of the argument is that a celebrant, by wishing a Merry Christmas to a non-celebrant, isn’t seeking to impose anything on them. It’s a general greeting, a form of well-wishing which doesn’t require or impose any belief … like “peace be with you”. Reciprocating the greeting doesn’t connote any sort of belief either, as opposed to, “May the Lord be with you”.

But what about “Happy Holidays” as a replacement? As people left work for vacations this week, they were wishing others “Happy Holidays”. I find it difficult to understand what holiday could be referred to other than Christmas. Hannukah has come and gone. That leaves Kwanzaa, which I understand is an African-American holiday celebration. The only problem is that the people to whom “Happy Holidays” were being wished weren’t black. And secondly, Kwanzaa is not really mainstream. I know it has been featured on US postage stamps and all, but the other day I saw a Jewish person wish a black person a Happy Kwanzaa. There was massive awkwardness, silence, and a no reciprocation of the greeting. A festive holiday ain’t going to work when things are like that.

If you wish a Muslim “Happy Holidays” (plural), exactly what holidays are you referring to? There’s Christmas Day, a named federal holiday, and New Year’s Day, another federal holiday. And to continue the theme of overanalysis, that’s the start of a new year under the Gregorian calendar which has, of course, Christian origins (being established by papal decree) seeing as each major religion has its own calendar. But obviously no one imputes any religious belief to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar.

“Happy Holidays” still refers to holidays that someone might not celebrate, therefore a problem still remains. So I can only conclude that “Happy Holidays” is essentially a euphemism for Merry Christmas. Which is just ridiculous. But at the same time so very American.