If I’m just talking to a random group of people or a stranger in the check-out line, I always say “Happy Holidays.”
I think the general purpose of communication is to find connection. On any topic or at any time of year, I am looking for ways that language might allow the most mutual participation and satisfaction. So I try not to make assumptions that might limit the opportunity for common ground.
This doesn’t mean that I’m not remarkably upfront about the joy that I, personally, take in Christmas. Anyone who knows me will be hearing about decorating the tree, hanging the stockings, singing carols, exchanging gifts, lighting candles, the children’s pageant, and every other aspect of Christmas. But this isn’t something that I need to share with strangers!
Holidays are remarkably personal. I learned years ago, while on a committee to choose holiday decorations for the common areas of a diverse co-op apartment building, that the very mention of a certain baby in a manger, which is a symbol of hope and healing for many, can be deeply wounding for others who have been judged or condemned in the name of the religion that baby inspired.
By saying, “Happy Holidays” when I’m not sure about people’s own religious preferences, I’m stating that I value people of all holiday preferences enough that I don’t want any of them to feel invisible. I don’t want to subtly imply that ‘everyone’ celebrates Christmas, and thus reinforce a sense of marginalization for those who do not. (And this is not just about Christianity. Some Christians I know choose to skip the Santa Claus part of contemporary Christmas, saying that it has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. One devoutly Christian family I know literally heads for remote mountains to have a holiday free from all commercial mention of Christmas. Other secularly minded folks embrace the tree, stockings and gifts, elves, reindeer and sleighs, without any thought that it is a religious holiday.)
Non-celebrants of Christmas are already besieged with that feeling of being ‘other’ because of store ads and decorations, radio stations Christmas music, school and work holiday schedules, TV specials, and hundreds of other cultural reinforcements that normalize Christmas. Despite the cable-TV hype about the “War on Christmas,” in my view it barely qualifies as a spat.
Consider this analogy. What if I decided to wish everyone with whom I came into contact in June, “Happy Gay Pride Day!” Now for me, that may feel like a wonderful blessing and Gay Pride Day might be my favorite holiday of the year. But for others, this ‘blessing’ might cause a sense of dislocation, anger, or pain -- feel like more of a curse. To distribute such wishes to all whose path I cross is to say, “My desire to celebrate my own belief system and life is more important than any pain it might cause.”
Some Christians will be appalled that I appear to be equating Gay Pride Day with the celebration of the birth of their Savior. I am not equating them at all! I am simply saying that, in a pluralistic society, we can never assume that everyone in the room shares our faith, beliefs, or values. Making room for each other is a matter of respect; it is speaking to others as we would have them speak to us.
It is a tremendous blessing to live in a country where every person has the right to choose whether to celebrate holidays and otherwise live with a chosen faith (or non-faith). So the question isn’t whether people have the right to say “Merry Christmas.” The question is, do we want to use our interactions, even breezy greetings in the check-out line, to promote a sense of “us” that includes some and excludes others, or do we want to create a climate of respect for diversity and welcoming inclusivity?
My own Unitarian Universalist congregation consists of people who celebrate Hanukkah, Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, all of the above and none of the above. Some have even started marking a brand new Unitarian Universalist holiday, Chalica (www.Chalica.blogspot.com), which honors our particular religious principles. To every one of them and to each one of you I say, with joy and respect, “Happy Holidays!”