"Happy Holidays" - Deal With It

christmas tree
christmas tree (Photo credit: fsse8info)

An earlier version of this post was written in 2006. It was updated and revised in 2017.

The phrase "happy holidays" seems to enrage many conservative Christians and represents the heart of the war on Christmas. When an individual says "happy holidays" to such a Christian instead of "merry Christmas," the Christian is supposed to assume that this is code for "I am an atheist, and I detest your Christmas." Never mind that many prominent atheists celebrate Christmas.

Even worse is when a company sets a policy encouraging their employees to say "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas." This is worse because it is supposed to reflect an organized conspiracy of misguided political correctness and hostility toward Christianity. Thus, "happy holidays" has come to symbolize efforts to "take the Christ out of Christmas" to many gullible Christians.

If we cut through the right-wing efforts to inflame their easily provoked base to bilk them out of a few dollars, we can examine what is really happening here and learn something valuable about the conservative Christian mind. Our starting point is to ask what might lead an ordinary person to say "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas." Perhaps the person simply wants to wish someone a merry Christmas and a happy New Year in the most efficient manner. "Happy holidays" accomplishes this quite well. However, there could be other reasons for doing so.

Perhaps the speaker does not know his or her audience well enough to know the listener's religious beliefs. Thus, "happy holidays" is selected because it covers all possible holidays that the listener might celebrate (e.g., Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice, or my personal favorite, Festivus). But why would the speaker do this? Why not simply assume that everyone one encounters is Christian? By opting for "happy holidays," the speaker is recognizing that not everyone shares his or her beliefs and that those who do not are still deserving of respect. Is this political correctness run amok or simply a healthy sensitivity to the reality that people differ in their beliefs?

When the Christian meets a complete stranger and says "merry Christmas," we have a few possible motives to examine. First, the statement may indicate that the Christian genuinely believes that the stranger shares his or her beliefs. Perhaps this derives from simple ignorance in that the Christian routinely assumes that everyone shares his or her beliefs. Of course, this is hard to imagine in light of the efforts of right-wing pundits to convince their base that they are under constant attack by a liberal media and an army of secular progressives seeking to ban their bible and eradicate their holidays.

A second and much more likely possibility is that the Christian has never thought about how hearing "merry Christmas" might feel to a person who practices another religion. The Christian is used to being in the majority and has probably never been surrounded by people wishing him or her "happy Hanukkah" or something similar. This is a different form of ignorance, but it is still ignorance. In this scenario, the Christian has never felt the need to put him or herself in the shoes of another. Thus, this type of ignorance involves a lack of empathy for others.

A third possibility is that the Christian knows full well that others don't share his or her beliefs, understands perfectly well how his or her greeting may affect people, and simply doesn't give a damn. This is the Christian who might say something like, "This is America, and in America we celebrate Christmas." This is the hostile neoconservative sort of Christian which Bill O'Reilly seems to represent. "If the listener has a problem with my greeting, that's their problem. I'm not going to change my behavior for anyone."

In the context of corporate America, we see similar reasoning but on a larger scale. By setting a policy that employees of a particular store will wish customers "happy holidays," the corporation is is demonstrating recognition that this greeting captures all possible holidays and carries little risk of excluding anyone. In fact, the only group who seems offended by it are the conservative Christians.

And why do they take offense? They take offense because their right not to respect non-Christian beliefs is not being honored. This is what makes me suspect that many more conservative Christians belong to the third category I mentioned above than one might otherwise guess. These Christians want to hear "merry Christmas," and they don't care how this greeting affects others. When this attitude wins, intolerance wins.