Last Saturday I was making a run up to Phoenix to return something to IKEA and have dinner with some friends up there. I stopped by the Safeway on the way out of town to pick up a Christmas cactus as a hostess gift and on my way out I dropped a buck in the Salvation Army bucket.
“Thank you, and merry Christmas!” shouted the bell-ringer.
“Merry Christmas,” said I as I headed over to Jamba Juice to pick up some portable brunch.
I like this time of year. I like that people wish me Merry Christmas. For all the grumbling about the season and the shopping and the traffic, you can usually find an undercurrent of “goodwill toward men” beneath the grumpiness most everywhere you go. That’s a good thing. It gives me hope for humanity.
On the way home from Phoenix, I saw a truck that had rigged up a hand-painted sign in the back, (a plywood statement of the sort that just screams “crackpot,”) that said “It’s ‘Merry Christmas,’ not ‘Happy Holidays.’ Put CHRIST back in CHRISTMAS.”
And I just shook my head. I wasn’t aware that Jesus had gone missing from Christmas. If you live in the western world, you cannot avoid Christianity; it permeates every aspect of the culture. If there’s a person alive who hasn’t heard of Jesus, they are either infants or living in some isolated rural spot on a foreign continent that has no contact with the rest of the world. So I really don’t get the outrage some people have over the whole “Happy Holidays” greeting, as if somehow they are being unfairly persecuted for their religion by big, mean, non-Christians. The ghosts of children at Auschwitz are no doubt weeping in sympathy for them.
Here’s a newsflash: When 76% of your country identifies as Christian, Christians are in exactly zero danger of being persecuted or marginalized for their religion. What they’re really pissed off about is that they cannot impose THEIR religion on everyone else. “What do you mean you don’t want a nativity scene on the courthouse lawn and the 10 commandments in the courtroom itself? What’s wrong with you, you heathen Commie bastard?” Every time non-Christians or non-religious folks say “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! I’m not a Christian, and I don’t dig your efforts to try to make me and everyone else one, and our Constitution says that’s perfectly okay,” as they attempt to repel some incursion of Christianity into an areligious space, a sub-group of self-appointed crusaders throws a hissy fit, crying about how people are trying to take their religion away from them. It’s some kind of bizarre reverse projection, wherein what you do to others is what you’re claiming is being done to you, but you claim victimhood. It’s really baffling to me. No one’s trying to take anything away from you; they’re just trying not to get any of yours on ‘em, and that’s entirely their right. You don’t get to be offended if people do not aid and abet, or even resent, your attempts to convert them to your way of thinking.
A couple weeks ago, I was accosted in the toothpaste aisle at Target by a woman and a teenage girl who informed me that they were on a scavenger hunt for their church. I said okay, what do you need? Well, apparently they were scavenging for prayer requests. So I gave them a couple, because I’m okay with prayer; I believe focused energy, whatever you call it (prayer, meditation), on a problem can (but doesn’t always) make a difference, and if they wanted to do that for the world, more power to them. At that point, though, they asked if we could all pray together right there and then. Evidently, they were scavenging for souls, but I just wanted my tube of Sensodyne FreshMint. So I told them that I would let them pray because that was their thing, not mine, and I support people doing their thing even if it’s not my thing. And while they were visibly disappointed, they graciously went on their way. It was an odd, but not contentious, encounter, and an example of how differing perspectives can meet and disagree without raised voices or bloodshed. If that ain’t some Christmas spirit, I don’t know what is.
But people are getting downright nasty about holiday speech. It wasn’t just this crackpot with some plywood and spray paint; it’s all over the place—letters to the editor, signs in people’s yards, articles and blogs all over the web complaining of “political correctness” (which, as far as I can tell, is a pejorative shorthand for “anything that asks me to consider the fact that there are other people in the world, other people who might think and live differently than I do and still be decent people and therefore should be respected as such”) run amok. It’s Christmas! Why can’t we say so?
Well, because it’s not Christmas. It’s not Christmas every day for a month after Thanksgiving. Christmas is on December 25th. However, the Christmas season lasts a lot longer, and it just happens to coincide with other religious observances, including Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and Solstice. If it were just Christmas alone all that time, I’d say “Go nuts with your ‘Merry Christmases.’” But it’s not; we have to share. And as much as some people enjoy hearing “Merry Christmas,” it only stands to reason that people who celebrate other holidays would enjoy hearing a greeting appropriate to their celebration. I wish my friends who are Jewish “Happy Hanukkah” and my pagan friends receive a “Blessed Solstice” wish from me. This is what used to be called “manners”: caring enough about other people, and knowing enough about them, to wish them well in a personally meaningful way. Do we wish divorced people “Happy Anniversary!” because we ourselves are married? Of course not. It’s only basic courtesy to try to use the appropriate words for the appropriate time, place and people; how hard is that to comprehend?
Sometimes we want to wish someone well during the holiday season, and we have no idea what their religious preference is, if any. Given the aforementioned Christian majority, your odds are pretty good that a “Merry Christmas” won’t go amiss; however some people choose not to gamble and go with “Happy Holidays” so as to be as inclusive as possible. That seems to me to be a kind and generous choice, one totally consistent with the message of “peace on earth” and that whole “do unto others” bit encouraged by the very Jesus these people are so vigorously (if unnecessarily) defending. People are free to make a different choice for themselves, but why anyone would get pissed off about someone wishing them “Season’s Greetings” is entirely beyond me. Is it really such a terrible, onerous task to think about someone else instead of yourself for the brief period of time it takes to say two words, such that you feel religiously oppressed and that the entire basis of your faith is threatened? And if the answer is yes, aren’t you being just a wee bit ridiculous?
Indeed, the outrage over “Happy Holidays” illustrates the point perfectly. Here we have a group of Christians who are annoyed to not receive the greeting they prefer based on their religious preference, and their reaction to this is to righteously deny everyone else the thing they insist on for themselves. Beautiful. Of course, people like this are usually blind and deaf to irony, so the teachable moment is lost. Self-absorption reigns.
Also, there’s a two-way responsibility here, I think, for people exchanging holiday greetings. The givers have a responsibility to be reasonably sensitive to the possibility that the person they’re speaking to may not share the same religious beliefs as they, and the receivers have a responsibility to accept the greeting without oversensitivity, understanding that it’s in people’s nature to offer what is most familiar to them and is probably meant positively and kindly, and that should they really feel a need to correct the giver, they should do so gently and with a smile. If a person freaks out because someone wished them a merry Christmas, or because someone wished them something a little more ecumenical, that person has got a staggering lack of perspective. They need to get it together and behave themselves. Sheesh.
Though I was raised Catholic, I haven’t been a Christian for half my life now. But I love Christmas. The traditions of Christmas are also the traditions of my family, my childhood, and in large part my culture, and while I am not a Christian, I’m unwilling to divorce myself from those traditions. I love Santa and I dig the Hanukkah story of the lamp oil, and I always mark the solstice and the turning of the wheel of the year. It’s human nature to mark the passing of time with ritual, and I’m all for enjoying and respecting them all, rather than getting militant about a single one, and angry if everyone else doesn’t follow suit.
Can’t everyone just chill out? It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. They should settle down, eat a Santa cookie, enjoy their (pagan) evergreen, and get over themselves.
Merry Christmas, and dogs bless us every one.