Carlos E. Cortés
Professor Emeritus of History
University of California, Riverside
Let’s talk about the Holiday Season.
December is bearing down, Christmas will soon be with us, and you want to be sensitive to those of different religious persuasions. So what should you say when you decide to wish season’s greetings?
The Old Days
When I was growing up in the 1940’s in Kansas City, Missouri, it was simple. Sometimes you said “Merry Christmas.” Sometimes you said “Happy Holidays.” You listened to Bing Crosby singing both “White Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” Nobody I knew was offended.
My home was religiously mixed. My Jewish immigrant maternal grandparents fled from late-nineteenth-century Eastern European religious oppression. In Kansas City they practiced Reform Judaism. They observed Passover, Hanukkah, and the Jewish High Holy Days. But they also loved celebrating Christmas.
My mother sang in her Jewish temple choir. But she also sang Christmas carols -– we all sang Christmas carols — when the family, including my Jewish grandparents, gathered around the Christmas tree to open presents. Needless to say, my Mexican Catholic father also enjoyed Christmas.
The New Days
Things aren’t that simple today. Choosing your season’s greeting has turned into unarmed combat.
In one corner we have those who insist that you should always say “Happy Holidays” because “Merry Christmas” is insensitive, if not downright offensive, to some. In an attempt to be more religiously-inclusive, some organizations have officially dropped “Merry Christmas.” Some retailers have gone so far as to mandate that their employees only use “Happy Holidays.”
In the other corner we have those who have declared such actions to be a “War on Christmas.” Songs have been written about the “War on Christmas.” One major national organization set up an online poll asking people to rate stores on their treatment of Christmas, with one of the listed choices being “offensive.” After spending Christmas Day, 2009, with my wife’s extended family, during my drive home I listened to an entire hour on talk radio devoted to the “War on Christmas.”
Enough already, folks. Let’s all calm down.
Desperately Seeking Neutrality
“Happy Holidays” is a perfectly good neutral salutation. However, it ceases to be neutral when it becomes urged or mandated as a conscious replacement for “Merry Christmas” rather than as a freely-expressed alternate seasonal greeting.
Trying to restrict the use of “Merry Christmas” is a misguided if well-intended effort by some to mute a deeply-embedded American cultural tradition. True, some traditions deserve interment. But saying “Merry Christmas” isn’t one of them.
Maybe I run in the wrong circles, but I’ve met few non-Christians who have ever indicated to me that they found “Merry Christmas” to be offensive or exclusionary. And, because of my diversity work, I’ve talked to hundreds, maybe thousands of people, about this topic.
Certainly not all Americans celebrate Christmas or greet people with “Merry Christmas,” but that doesn’t mean that they feel offended or excluded because someone else says it to them as a genuine expression of good wishes. Hearing “Merry Christmas” comes with living in a nation where three-quarters of the people are Christians and where school calendars are organized around the Christmas holidays. Being in the minority doesn’t turn you into a hot-house plant that needs constant protection against innocently-proffered, well-meaning remarks.
Who’s Offended? Who’s Offending?
I’ve never heard a major Jewish or Muslim or Hindu American leader say that “Merry Christmas” was offensive. Nor have I seen this position taken by any of their national organizations, although admittedly I have not conducted a complete analysis.
- Jewish radio talk show hosts like Michael Medved and Dennis Prager wish their listeners “Merry Christmas.”
- My Muslim stockbroker wishes me “Merry Christmas.”
- So do my Hindu and Sikh friends.
- Irving Berlin, a Jewish composer, wrote “White Christmas.”
- Non-Christians like Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow, and Neil Sedaka have recorded Christmas albums.
So if so many of those who are supposedly “offended” aren’t, then how did the idea arise that “Happy Holidays” should replace “Merry Christmas,” not just accompany it? I don’t know for sure, but I’ve got a hunch. My guess is that this admonition came from well-intended Christians who were laudably trying to be more inclusive or seeking to avoid being offensive. Right goal, wrong action, leading to the “War on Christmas” backlash.
The “War on Christmas”
“Happy Holidays” may have been a ham-handed “solution,” but this alone doesn’t explain the rise of those who hysterically declare that there is some “War on Christmas.” So what has driven that proclamation? Two causes, as I see it.
First, we’ve cheapened the use of the word, “war.” Not sure when this began. Maybe it was the 1960s’ War on Poverty. Since then we’ve launched war after war — on drugs, illiteracy, cancer, smoking, obesity, global warming, and, of course, terrorism. If we disagree, it’s got to be a war — ergo, the Culture Wars. It’s gotten so that, if you want to attract attention or show that you’re serious about something, you’ve got to either declare war or accuse others of declaring war, like the so-called educational “war against boys.”
So it was linguistically convenient to label Happy Holidays activists as anti-Christmas warriors, although my guess is that most of those Happy Holidays enthusiasts are Christians. This soon morphed into accusations that anyone who used “Happy Holidays,” no matter how innocently, must be part of the “War on Christmas.”
Then there was another contributing factor. This was a wonderful opportunity to participate in that growing national self-indulgence of becoming a victim. Hearing “Happy Holidays” provided a great opportunity for many to join the ranks of the “offended.”
For demagogues who trade on riling up their followers — or listeners — the ersatz “War on Christmas” was manna from heaven. And the campaign has worked. Some polls show that a majority of Americans now find “Happy Holidays” to be “offensive.” I wonder if that means boycotting Bing Crosby?
Certainly there have been ludicrous individual efforts to try to dumb down the cultural celebration of Christmas. In 2009, apparently based on the complaint of one (repeat, ONE) county resident, a top official of Sonoma County, California, banned stars and angels on Christmas trees in county buildings. The County Public Defender openly defied the ban and set up a Christmas tree, crowned by a star, in his office lobby. That Public Defender happened to be Jewish. The brief ban was rescinded. Yet these individual incidents, even misdirected Happy Holidays company mandates, don’t come close to being a War on Christmas.
Can’t we disagree on things without declaring war or accusing others of declaring war? Can’t we offer alternative perspectives without resorting to hyperbole and demagoguery? Can’t we interact without drawing lines in the sand? We should be able to exchange sincere traditional greetings — including both “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” — without becoming offended or worrying about offending.
So let me offer some ideas for addressing this conundrum on your campuses. At its core, it requires learning to chill out in December.
- Recognize that not everyone approaches Christmas in the same way. Many Americans do not celebrate Christmas. Others view it as a cultural event, say “Merry Christmas,” and sing Christmas carols without subscribing to Christian theology.
- Don’t try to convince or coerce people into dropping “Merry Christmas.” Christmas is not just a Christian celebration. It’s a thoroughly American cultural holiday in which millions of non-Christians participate. And for millions of Americans, wishing “Merry Christmas” is an integral part of expressing and celebrating the holiday season.
- Assume good intentions. Don’t become offended if someone wishes you either “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” Or “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Kwanzaa.” Recognize that somebody saying “Happy Holidays” or a store putting up a “Happy Holidays” sign is not an insult to Christians any more than saying “Merry Christmas” is an insult to non-Christians.
- Drop the “War on Christmas” rhetoric. It’s inflammatory and divisive. There’s no war. Misguided individual actions, yes. But no war.
- Make a serious effort to respect the various religious traditions that co-exist in our society and on our campuses. But don’t do it merely by some convenient Hanukkah add-on at Christmas-time or by trying to extend the holiday season time frame so that it manages to embrace Ramadan (which began in August this year). At the proper times, let’s all pause to recognize and honor, at least briefly, the important dates of our nation’s varied religious traditions. In the case of Judaism, that would include the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, despite the fact that they don’t occur conveniently near Christmas.
So let’s end the December Wars and declare victory –- for all Americans. Even those who seem to enjoy playing the victim and relish being offended are welcome to join the “peace effort.” Our nation would be a far better place if we could find common ground by showing true respect for our diversity, including religious diversity, and recognize that there are many ways of expressing appreciation for that diversity.
That would be a giant step toward becoming a more inclusive society.
I’d like to hear your thoughts about Season’s Greetings.