Merry Christmas. Don't Be Stupid.
As we head toward the rare concurrence of Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah, America’s annual ritual of infusing holiday greetings with identity politics is in full swing. Ever alert for cultural grievances, some conservatives have even damned the Obamas for sending out seasonal cards wishing recipients “a joyous holiday season and a wonderful new year.” The nerve.
This year, the ritual grousing has gotten a boost from President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign promise to bring back “Merry Christmas.” Back in October 2015, he pledged that: “If I become president, we’re gonna be saying Merry Christmas at every store. You can leave ‘Happy holidays’ at the corner.”
Trump’s recently completed “thank you tour” featured stages set with Christmas trees and signs reading “Merry Christmas USA.” You could read that as nothing more than festive seasonal decor or as a swipe at non-Christians.
The annual “Merry Christmas” dispute is one of the weirdest things about contemporary America.
Having grown up a devout Christian in an almost entirely Christian town -- in my high school the Bernsteins were part of the tiny Catholic minority -- I understand why “Happy Holidays” sounds euphemistic and forced to many people. They celebrate Christmas, they love Christmas, they can’t imagine why anyone would object to their good wishes, and they resent the implication that there’s something wrong with their ways.
In my 20s, however, I converted to Judaism and, aside from buying gifts for my Christian relatives, stopped celebrating Christmas. 1 So when people wish me a merry Christmas, it can feel a little awkward.
Awkward, not offensive.
Whether you say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy holidays,” I’ll happily accept your good wishes. Because interpreting the more inclusive “Happy holidays” as a “war on Christmas” is both stupid and rude.
It’s stupid because there is in fact an American holiday season that stretches from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. There’s also a specifically Christian season that includes Advent, beginning on the Sunday closest to Nov. 30, and extends until Epiphany on Jan. 6. A devout Christian should be just as comfortable saying “Happy holidays” as “Merry Christmas.” (What do you have against the magi?)
Treating the good feelings of “Happy holidays” as a grievance is rude because you’re swerving out of your way to hurt and exclude people who already feel a bit alienated this time of year. On the flip side, taking offense at someone’s reflexive “Merry Christmas” is also inconsiderate. Accept the wishes for what they are -- an expression of good cheer and common humanity.
Every religious tradition has a version of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others….” In the spirit of the season (whatever holiday you may observe), try putting yourself in another’s place.
Aside from occasional candle lighting, we don’t celebrate Hanukkah, either. As a minor holiday dressed up to seem major, it’s a bit too much like meat substitute.
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