Most of the time, I don’t say “Merry Christmas,” and neither should you.
This has nothing to do with culture wars or immoral panics or the Scary Stories of white-right fundraising agencies. Nor does it have anything to do with pluralism or religious hegemony or with freedom of conscience. It’s not even a matter of general etiquette, common decency, and Rule No. 1.
The reason you shouldn’t say “Merry Christmas” most of the time is because most of the time it’s not Christmas.
Pointing out something so unremarkably obvious should fall under the category of “No duh-uh,” but we live in a time when much of what falls under that category still needs to be stated and explained and repeated.
So let’s repeat that, in the imperative: Don’t say “Merry Christmas!” if it’s not Christmas. Most of the time it’s not Christmas. So most of the time you shouldn’t say “Merry Christmas!” for the same reasons that you shouldn’t go around saying “Happy Fourth of July!” in September or October (or November, or December, etc.).
“Merry Christmas!” is the traditional holiday greeting for the holiday of Christmas. You won’t be honoring the holiday, or the tradition, or the person you’re greeting, if you trot out that phrase every other day of the year. You’ll just be confusing people. Or, rather, you’ll just be clarifying to others that you are, yourself, confused.
Holiday “greetings” is an odd term in that these phrases are used both as greetings and as farewells. If I meet you on the Fourth of July, I may greet you with “Happy Fourth of July!” instead of the usual “Hello.” But then, when we part, I may also repeat the phrase again, saying “Happy Fourth of July” instead of the usual “goodbye” or “see ya later.”
But what if we meet on, say, the first of July? It would be odd — inappropriate, inaccurate, wrong, socially awkward, and unpleasantly inept — for me to greet you with “Happy Fourth of July!” instead of “hello,” because it is, in fact, not the Fourth of July. But it may still be appropriate and accurate, when we part, for me to forgo the usual “goodbye,” replacing it with wishes for a “Happy Fourth of July!” That would be the case if — and only if — it seemed unlikely that we would be meeting again on or before the actual Fourth of July. We sometimes clarify this by expanding it to something like, “And, hey, if I don’t see you before then, have a Happy Fourth of July!” But that meaning is generally understood and it is therefore still honest, accurate, and pleasant to shorten this to simply, “Happy Fourth of July!”
Consider a non-hypothetical example: Leaving the Big Box last Monday, I said “Merry Christmas, Joyce!” but I did not say “Merry Christmas” to another co-worker and friend, Dave, who was standing right next to her. Joyce wished me a “Merry Christmas” as well, but Dave did not, and this was all utterly appropriate and polite and not weird. Why? Because Dave and I were both also scheduled to work on Christmas Eve.* We knew we would see one another again before Christmas, and so our Christmas greetings and Christmas well-wishing farewells would be — and ought to be — reserved until then.
The general rule then — the No duh-uh rule that everyone knows, including those who pretend not to know it — is that one does not and ought not to say “Merry Christmas!” unless it’s either: A) actually Christmas, or B) approaching Christmas and the last likely occasion that you’ll be seeing the other person before Christmas.
So, again, most of the time we do not and should not say “Merry Christmas” because most of the time it’s not Christmas. Duh.
Now, let’s go back to our hypothetical Fourth-of-July greetings on the first of July situation. The other important thing to remember there is that my offering such a greeting to you would only make sense if I knew that you were also American — that is, if I knew you were also someone who celebrates the Fourth of July. That is, after all, a specifically American holiday. For most people, in most of the world, July 4 is not the Fourth of July.
So if you were, say, Canadian, it would be odd — inappropriate, inaccurate, wrong, socially awkward, and unpleasantly inept — for me to say any of that business about “And, hey, if I don’t see you before then, have a Happy Fourth of July!” because America’s Independence Day is not a Canadian holiday celebrated by Canadians. What I ought to be saying to Canadian you on our hypothetical July 1 meeting, instead, is “Happy Canada Day!” — something I ought to know to say to you given that we are, in this hypothetical situation, friends, and I do not wish to be a shitty friend even hypothetically. In that version of our hypothetical, it would fall to you to say the bit about “… and if I don’t see you before then, have a Happy Fourth of July!” Because acknowledging days that are important to others even if those days are not important to us individually is something that non-shitty friends do.
Christmas is not an exclusively American holiday. It’s not even an exclusively Christian holiday, given that it’s celebrated by millions of people around the world as a meaningful and festive occasion that is, for them, wholly unrelated to anything having to do with the birth of Jesus. But it’s still mostly a sectarian holiday and, even with those additional millions who celebrate a largely secularized Christmas, it’s not celebrated by everyone everywhere (or even at the same time). And it’s odd — inappropriate, inaccurate, wrong, socially awkward, and unpleasantly inept — to offer holiday greetings to anyone for a holiday that they do not celebrate.
This rarely becomes a problem between people who know and care for one another. If we know one another and care for one another, then part of that knowing and caring will involve knowing and caring what holidays we each respectively do and do not celebrate. Or we’ll be able to find out by asking, which is how that works among people who know and care for one another.***
But the matter of which holidays any given person may or may not celebrate gets much trickier if the two people involved don’t know each other well — if they’re strangers or mere acquaintances. We cannot simply assume that any given stranger or acquaintance celebrates all the same holidays we do. That assumption is odd — meaning, again, all the things “odd” means in all the instances above. Every year on the last Friday in April, you’re free to cheerfully ask strangers what kind of tree they’re planting, but if they have no idea what you’re talking about, that won’t make them the odd one in that situation.
So here we have another No duh-uh! rule about when it is or is not odd to say “Merry Christmas.” You can and should only say this if you know that the person you’re saying it to celebrates Christmas.
Every day at the Big Box I interact with some 2,000 strangers and acquaintances. Whenever I learn that they are someone who celebrates Christmas, I wish them a “Merry Christmas.” If someone is buying a Christmas tree, for instance. Or when I’ve just helped them pick out a Christmas gift for a family member. Or if they’ve just waited while I climb down a ladder with the display version of a giant, glittery LED yard sign that spells out “MERRY CHRISTMAS!” in three-foot letters. Those purchases of gifts and decorations are part of their celebration, and so I join that celebration by wishing them a “Merry Christmas” whether it’s Christmas Eve or early October, when all the Christmas [stuff] first hits the shelves.
But most of the time, with most of our customers, I do not say this. Because, again, most of the time it’s not Christmas, or the last likely time I’ll see them before Christmas. And, again, most of the time I don’t know whether or not Christmas is something they celebrate.
The only thing more odd than not following these basic rules is pretending it’s not odd — inappropriate, inaccurate, wrong, socially awkward, and unpleasantly inept — not to do so.
(Please note that we’ve now gotten through this entire discussion while civilly restraining ourselves to polite, civil considerations of politeness, civility, and consideration, while barely even hinting at the massive, foul-smelling can of worms involving a brief, post-WWII spasm of guilt-induced qualification in the imposition of white Christian hegemony on Jewish Americans and how that was soon thereafter abandoned when Jewish Americans proved to be unreliable allies in the Second Redemption and its ongoing efforts to overturn and erase the achievements of the Second Reconstruction.)
* As it turns out, Dave called out on Christmas Eve. This meant that I missed my opportunity to wish him a happy and a merry Christmas, even though I’d practiced saying “Merry Christmas” in Edo. But since it also meant that I had to do his “smartlist” and spend an hour on a forklift dropping pallets for his department, I’m fine with that. Thanks a lot, Dave.**
** Just kidding. And on the vanishingly rare chance that Dave ever reads this page, Iselogbe, my friend.
*** In the context of such a relationship, it can even sometimes be appropriate for me to offer you holiday greetings for occasions that I know you don’t celebrate but that I know you know I do. My Very Canadian friend Dwight and I would always toast one another on both Canada Day and the Fourth of July and we shared Thanksgiving feasts in both October and November.
This requires mutuality and reciprocity. Imagine two dear friends, one Roman Catholic, the other Greek Orthodox. They would wish one another “Merry Christmas” on both December 25 and January 6. The Catholic would be sure to say “Merry Christmas” to his friend on January 6 because he would know that was a special day for his friend and he would honor his friend by honoring that day. But he might also say “Merry Christmas” to his friend on December 25 because that could also be a way of including his friend in a day that was special to himself. If it works both ways, it works.