December 3, 2018

Coming to a Conversation Soon: "Merry Christmas"

war on christmas cat
Photo by Steven Perez [CC BY-SA 2.0]
One topic addressed by many atheist bloggers this time of year is that of various holiday greetings and whether atheists are annoyed or even offended when they hear "Merry Christmas." It seems to me that this phrase is almost always used with good intentions. It might reflect the assumption that both parties share Christianity, but I do not think this is necessarily the case. The assumption that it probably does reflect is that both parties celebrate Christmas. And for that reason, I suppose those few of us who do not celebrate Christmas might find it presumptuous.

If one construes Christmas as primarily being a religious holiday, then I suppose it might make sense that an atheist would be annoyed by the phrase. But what about those who believe that any religious meaning Christmas might have once had was lost a long time ago and that Christmas now represents little more than a retail event? Would someone who believed this have any reason to react negatively to hearing "Merry Christmas?"

Personally, I do not interpret "Merry Christmas" as assuming that I am Christian. I interpret it as reflecting the assumption that I celebrate Christmas. I don't celebrate Christmas, but I am in such a small minority that I can usually forgive the speaker for making the assumption. On the rare occasions when I feel mildly annoyed at hearing "Merry Christmas," it seems to have more to do with me growing tired of the holiday nonsense than any ill will toward the person who said it. I guess the exception would be when a person who knows how I feel about it persists in saying it.

I do wonder how "Merry Christmas" feels to Jews, Muslims, etc. Not that some Christians necessarily care about their feelings, but it does seem reasonable that persons of other religions might have more of a negative reaction than I do. To them, "Merry Christmas" might seem like a devaluing of their beliefs and traditions. Perhaps "Happy Holidays" makes more sense.

To the degree that Christmas is viewed as having something to do with Christianity, I think an argument could be made that "Merry Christmas" is an example of Christian privilege. I wouldn't necessarily disagree with such an argument, but I would be tempted to point out that this would have to be one of the milder and least upsetting forms of Christian privilege. I'd probably also note that Christmas has become so secularized that I'm not sure it does have much of anything to do with Christianity.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2005. It was revised in 2018.