A Response to the Happy Holidays Contraversy

Hello readers. Overwhelmingly, readers seemed to love my last Lj Idol Entry about why I loved Christmas. However, I had not anticipated that one statement I made in passing would generate the controversy that it did. Originally, I had planned to respond in the comment section, but the more I thought about it, it occurred to me that my feelings about this issue were so complex that I wouldn’t be able to convey them in a comment. I hope this entry doesn’t raise more anger and controversy, but it is a controversy I felt I shouldn’t shy away from. If you remember, the statement that sparked this controversy was about how it makes me angry when people refer to Christmas as Xmas, or say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. One reader responded that many religions have holidays that fall around the time of Christmas, and that part of the joy of this season comes from recognizing and celebrating a spirit of love and inclusiveness. This person also pointed out that it is not as if Christmas has a monopoly on the season. “It’s not hollow to wish a spirit of love and celebration to everyone, no matter what this season means to them. The people I know who don’t celebrate Christmas don’t get angry at the recognition of Christmas: they get angry at the suggestion that Christmas is the only holiday worth mentioning and that their own beliefs and celebrations don’t merit a wish for joy.” Another reader agreed, and also pointed out that the holidays mean time off from school/work, so you could alternately be wishing them a happy vacation.

I know this response is pretty delayed, but it is because when I wrote my original statement, I honestly couldn’t put my finger on exactly why referring to Christmas as Xmas, or saying Happy Holidays made me angry. For the record, while my Christian faith is important to me, I am not an ultraconservative Christian who insists that my beliefs are the only ones that are right. In fact, I have several friends, and even some relatives who are not Christians. Every religion deserves respect, and I absolutely agree that every holiday merits the wish for joy. I love that our society is a melting pot where diversity is accepted and celebrated, a blessing that should not be taken for granted since there are still countries where people are killed because of their beliefs. So then why do statements of Happy Holidays and Xmas make me angry? In between Christmas celebrations these last two weeks, I have given this question a lot of thought, and even sought the input of my mother, who feels the same way I do, but like me had never really thought about why we feel this way. Then, my mom expanded this discussion to the whole family at the Christmas dinner celebration with my grandma. What follows are the conclusions I came to, as well as some very interesting thoughts brought up in family discussion. If you still disagree with my feelings after reading this, I understand, and you are welcome to post comments either way since another great thing about our society is our freedom to disagree with one another and openly express our views. Also, in the Journalism career I hope to have after college graduation, disagreement from my readers may be common, so handling this controversy is good practice for my career!

You might remember how a few years ago, it seemed like every day brought another news story of a religion related court battle, from opposition to the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance which is recited in public schools, to opposition over a manger scene in a courthouse or the posting of the ten commandments in public schools, to opposition that a public place had a Christmas tree but refused to have a Menorah. Around this time, in my own school district, someone even complained about religious music being performed in choir, a complaint that put an end to a long-standing tradition of singing the Hallelujah Chorus at the end of high school choir concerts. In light of all this controversy, I remember watching the news one night and hearing that the White House under President George W. Bush, released a statement encouraging Americans to say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas out of respect for those who don’t celebrate Christmas. In past years, it was a mixed bag with people who didn’t know me saying Happy Holidays but most people saying Merry Christmas. But after this report was released, it was like a switch flipped, and all I heard, even from people who knew me for as long as I could remember was Happy Holidays, Happy Holidays, Happy Holidays! It was like saying Merry Christmas had become taboo, almost akin to using a cuss word. Even a good family friend WHOM WE HAVE SHARED A CHURCH PEW WITH ON CHRISTMAS EVE, came up to our family after a choir concert one year gushing Happy Holidays! When we were in the car and I mentioned wanting to smack her, Mom told me that she has a kind of job that involves communicating with people of many different faiths, so she is probably expected to say Happy Holidays with her job, and thus this greeting became habit for her. Alright, I agree that part of what makes the Christmas season wonderful is embracing a spirit of inclusiveness of all people, and whether you are in a professional work situation or not, Happy Holidays could be a loving all-inclusive greeting. However I feel like the context in which Happy Holidays has come to be used today is not one of genuine love and inclusiveness. It has in my opinion become a context of “just to be safe, I probably better cover my butt and say Happy Holidays to everyone, even close friends so I get in the habit of it, because if I ever were to slip up and say Merry Christmas to a client who didn’t celebrate Christmas, my employer could be sued for religious discrimination just like the courthouse with the manger scene or I could be reprimanded”, a fear which I think has taken over the consciousness of Americans in a negative way. Yes, this season should be a season of recognizing and celebrating all faiths, but it should also be a season to feel safe to be yourself and say Merry Christmas without letting fear of a complaint or lawsuit take over your life, a fear that has manifest itself in the Happy Holidays greeting.

But for a second and even more compelling argument that came up when I had this discussion with my mom, think back for a moment to my earlier statement that our society is one where diversity is accepted and celebrated, something that should not be taken for granted since there are still countries where people are persecuted, even killed because of their religious beliefs. This freedom and acceptance of diversity is a treasured trademark of the culture of the United States, a right that is widely quoted from the first amendment of the Constitution, a document this country views as sacred in a sense. This amendment states that Congress shall make no law restricting the free exercise of religion, and that individuals are free to choose their religion or practice no religion at all. To ensure this right is upheld, there is a clause in the constitution mandating the separation of church and state, so while I am a Christian and thus see nothing wrong with a manger scene in a courthouse, legally, I can see where the protestors who opposed this manger scene were coming from, and alright, I suppose I could concede that maybe saying Happy Holidays inside the boundaries of government institutions is understandable. But I would like to argue that while Congress didn’t officially violate the Constitution by forbidding Christians to acknowledge their religion by saying Merry Christmas, I think the fact that the White House planted a seed in the American conscience that Merry Christmas could be perceived as an insensitive greeting in any setting, even in casual conversation with friends far removed from any government entity, is disturbing to me. I will never forget a discussion that was had in a bible study I attended a couple years ago with my mom where someone pointed out that being made to feel uncomfortable about openly expressing your religion, or having your religious expression met with hostility is a form of religious persecution, albeit mild compared to being killed, but persecution nonetheless. I think this bible study discussion came back to me and my mom when I brought up this controversy, as Mom and I both realized that there is never any controversy around greetings for secular holidays like “Happy 4th of July”, or Happy Thanksgiving”, but at Christmas, a religious holiday, Christians are made to feel uncomfortable by society for saying Merry Christmas, a mild form of religious persecution. Of course, other faiths should not be made to feel unwelcome either, but I think other beliefs could be recognized in a more positive way by encouraging open dialog instead of tiptoeing around the subject with a generic Happy Holidays. For example, to the cashier at the grocery store whom I don’t know, I could say Merry Christmas, and if she didn’t celebrate Christmas, she could just politely say “Oh thank you”, but if she chose to mention she didn’t celebrate Christmas but celebrated Hanukkah instead, I could use that as an opportunity to broaden my horizons and ask how her and her family celebrate Hanukkah, and she in turn could ask to know more about Christmas, and then before we part, I could genuinely wish her a happy Hanukkah, and she could wish me a Merry Christmas, thus acknowledging and celebrating our diversity rather than ignoring it. But as it is, I know very little about Hanukkah or the other religious holidays this time of year because our society is scared to say anything that could lead to any discussion of religion, preferring to hide from what could be a wonderful and enlightening dialog by using the generic Happy Holidays.

And don’t even get me started on Xmas! Actually, the first time I ever saw the word Xmas was the Christmas before this past Christmas: I think I first saw it on someone’s facebook status. My first reaction when I saw it was “what! Did I really read that right?” When I read it again and realized I had unfortunately read it correctly, my second reaction was disgust. Christians should absolutely be respectful of other faiths, but what about showing respect for Christians? Even though I consider myself a moderate and open-minded Christian, I think it is incredibly disrespectful to Christians to x out the Christ of Christmas! Now with these thoughts in mind, I would like to propose two questions. Perhaps we might all do well to ponder them as we go about our lives, and not forget about them when next Christmas comes around. First: if our society is scared to mention religion, is it possible that even though our society accepts diversity in the sense that we no longer arrest or kill those who disagree with us, perhaps we don’t celebrate and embrace this diversity the way we should, and thus we are not taking full advantage of the fruits of the freedom we are blessed to have, freedom that was won through much conflict and sacrifice? And second: is it possible that our society’s protection of religious freedom is more fragile than we would like to admit, and that if people are made to feel uncomfortable expressing their religion, what’s to say society wouldn’t gradually revert back to outright persecution or the prohibition of any religious expression altogether? Finally, and this argument will probably be the most controversial of them all, but still an argument that I feel is worth making, is the argument that while people who do not celebrate Christmas should not be made to feel unwelcome by our society, they also need to recognize and accept that in the United States, Christianity is the dominant religion. And by dominant, I don’t mean superior. What I mean is that Christianity is simply dominant in terms of the percentage of the population who identify themselves as Christian. An American Religious Identity Survey I found on religioustolerance.org, a site I have used for a couple college projects as it is an excellent source of unbiased information on all kinds of religious beliefs, did indicate that between 1990 and 2008, the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christian declined from 87 percent to 76 percent. But 76 percent is still over three quarters of the population, and the survey also indicated that the majority of this decline was not due to Christians switching to other religions, but choosing not to affiliate with any organized religion. I know several people who have disaffiliated from organized religion, and for many of them, it is not because they don’t believe in the faith, but simply because they were fed up with the church politics of things like the poor handling of the priest scandal and hard line intolerant views on issues like marriage and stem-cell research. So I bet it is quite possible many of these people are still Christians privately even if they choose not to be members of an official church.

Now since I am a blind person living in a predominantly sighted world, I know what it is like to feel uncomfortable and excluded sometimes. But I also recognize that since my blindness puts me in the minority of the population, it would be unrealistic for me to expect the whole world to cater to me. Therefore, I would like to argue that in the same way blind people like myself shouldn’t lobby for words like “see” or “watch” to be banned from the english language since use of these words by everyone around me might make me feel uncomfortable, people who are not Christian should not lobby for the word Christmas to be removed from our vocabulary. I know what you are probably thinking. You are probably thinking that comparing blindness to religion is like comparing apples to oranges, and some might even find this comparison insulting. But I think it could be argued that choosing a minority religion and being blind are very similar in that they are both attributes that make people different from the majority. Not in a negative way of course. There is nothing wrong with choosing to practice a minority religion, just as blindness is nothing to be ashamed of. But nonetheless, these things are both characteristics that make us different from the majority of the population, a fact we must recognize and accept when interacting with others. With this in mind, there is nothing wrong with people of other religions trying to encourage more awareness and acceptance of their beliefs by society, by say, working with businesses to have a menorah as part of the holiday decorations rather than only having Christmas symbols, just like blind people negotiate with businesses to make their services more accessible by say, making braille menus more available at restaurants. But to ban a word or expression used by the majority of society is going way too far. Just as words like “see” and “watch” are common expressions used without fear because society is predominantly sighted, society should be allowed to use the word Christmas without fear because the demography of our society is predominantly Christian. In fact, I personally want people to feel comfortable around me, which I believe involves feeling like you can talk to me no differently than you talk to sighted people. Thus, people ask me things like “did you see the new Harry Potter movie?” all the time, and I think nothing of it. No, I didn’t literally see the movie, but for Heavens sake, I know what they meant! Similarly, I think that if I were not Christian and someone came up to me and said Merry Christmas, I would just politely say “thank you! Merry Christmas to you as well!” This is because I think I would recognize that their use of the word Christmas was not intended to be malicious or insensitive to me. They are simply using it because it is the dominant custom in our society. And in the same way I can substitute “see” with my own means of seeing (hearing, taste, smell and touch), people who don’t celebrate Christmas ought to be willing to view the word Christmas as simply a common expression this time of year, and in their mind substitute their own customs. So as I said at the beginning of this entry, people may disagree with my feelings on this issue, and I respect that. And I encourage you readers to share your thoughts on this because I do recognize that these issues are complex, and thus while I hoped to enlighten readers and make them think about this issue in a new way, it is quite possible there are facets of this issue I hadn’t thought about, meaning perhaps I could use some enlightenment myself. But based on my current perspective, laid out in the arguments above, come next year, I plan to continue greeting everyone I meet with a genuine Merry Christmas!

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