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“Merry Happy Something Day!” A Sensible Guide to Religious Holidays in the Workplace

“Merry Happy Something Day!” A Sensible Guide to Religious Holidays in the Workplace December 4, 2014

A few years ago, the kooky characters on the TV-show Seinfeld tried their best to promote a new holiday – Festivus, “for the rest of us.” It was a non-traditional, non-religious holiday in December that began with an “airing of grievances.” For many reasons, it never really gained traction beyond its original farcical intent.

So today, just like centuries before us, we have a plethora of traditional and religious holidays this month. In Western culture, Christmas dominates not so much as a dominant Christian holiday, but a cultural and commercial event.

There’s no doubt that the U.S. has deeply Christian roots. Some will take the writings of ancient fathers and try to dispel the claim, but the facts speak differently. And for much of our history, Christianity has been the majority religion. Even today, despite the loud noise of diversity, more than 83 percent of U.S. Citizens claim a Christian faith.

And to further the argument for holiday celebrations in the workplace, 95 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas according to Gallup.

Joining in the celebration, employers in the past have given workers latitude with Christmas trees, card exchanges, potluck lunches and bonus money. For many workplaces, it’s the one time of year when the emphasis on production goals, the profit/loss statement, and the deadlines seems to slow down – slightly. And occasionally, you can even find a little holiday cheer.

Office christmas partStopping the Party

But lurking in nearly every workplace is the shadow of political correctness. Crumbling like snowmen in Spring, holiday expression is coming to an end in many workplaces. It started with the scrubbing of words like Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanza, replacing them with the more generic  — and terribly bland —  “holidays.”  Unfortunately, out of fear of someone being offended, many celebrations and expressions of any kind have simply stopped.

In most cases, no one really objected. No lawsuit was threatened by the People Against Any Religious Expression or the Freedom from Happy Religious People Front. The parties were eliminated by over-thinking executives who contemplated the mere possibility of someone’s objection.

Here’s a modern-day truth that we need to embrace. Everyone loves a party. Retirement cakes, birthday burritos, and baby celebrations are all part of what binds a workplace. The people who play together, stay together.

We like tradition – even those who buck “old school,” still count on Bagel Monday or the annual St. Patrick’s day crock-pot corned beef brought in by Patrick O’Malley in Transportation. Celebrating Christmas can be done in a way that doesn’t offend those who don’t believe, and still include those who do.

I worked with a deeply Jewish man who was routinely greeted with “Merry Christmas” by many of his customers. He simply smiled and was never offended. He told me that he would rather have a religious expression sent his way than a complaint or a foul word.  And he loved the fact that he got the day off. Yes, he would go to the movies and order Chinese food. That was his Christmas celebration.

In all but a few service-oriented workplaces, Christmas is a day off. If you don’t celebrate the birth of Christ, I’m guessing you’ll still take the day off – with pay. There’s no one I know of who will traipse off to work on Dec. 25, just to make a point that they “don’t do Christmas.”

We can all benefit from a little good cheer this time year, regardless of the source.

Extending Grace to Those Who Don’t Believe

We don’t need to be ashamed if we want to gather with coworkers and exchange Christmas presents, put up a Christmas tree, or hang Christmas lights. If you’re a Jewish,  Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or an atheist you’ll very likely not be offended by simple holiday expressions by others.

And when those who believe differently from me want to take a holy day off or want to celebrate their traditions, hopefully I’m extending the same measure of tolerance.

We should all be mindful that not everyone believes like we do, but that concern shouldn’t turn into a monster. Our workplaces are often dreadful on their own, and when we expend endless energy on finding offense, our labors are performed without any joy.

And conversely, there’s nothing Christian (or Hindu, or Muslim, or Atheist) about pushing our beliefs on those who find it offensive. There are ways to do life without needlessly putting others on defense and still not compromise your convictions.

Grace – like love – is a universal language that sweeps nearly every religious tradition. It’s the unmitigated favor that God shows to us, and in turn, we extend to others. Grace is the great equalizer, allowing people to be people without having to look over their shoulder.

I think this Workplace Grace is a better way to go. And that way, I won’t have to learn how to pronounce “Merry Christmahanakwanzika.”

What’s Christmas like in your workplace?

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