Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays? Which season’s greeting — the Christian or the non-denominational — should you use in polite conversation with strangers at the mall or acquaintances at the office?
Conventional liberal wisdom tells us that Happy Holidays is the correct greeting, as not everyone celebrates Christmas and assuming they do is presumptuous and anti-pluralist. Conventional conservative wisdom, meanwhile, dictates the opposite: there is no harm in wishing a stranger Merry Christmas, because most people in North America are Christians anyway, so your chances of offending somebody are fairly slim (And besides, people are just too sensitive these days.)
Some traditionalists, like U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, take the conservative, unapologetic Christmas stance to the extreme. When Trump discovered last month that Starbucks released a new line of plain red, holiday coffee cups devoid of the usual Christmas imagery (wreaths, reindeer etc.) the tawny Republican businessman contemplated launching a boycott of the coffee chain.
As a Jew who has never celebrated Christmas, I should probably appreciate Starbucks’ new line of inclusive cups and the concerted effort by shopkeepers and bank tellers to say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. But every year I find myself growing increasingly uncomfortable with Happy Holidays and warming up to Merry Christmas as a catch-all greeting in public. Unlike Trump, however, my discomfort with Happy Holidays doesn’t stem from the notion that the phrase is too inclusive, but rather that it isn’t inclusive at all.
The truth is that there is nothing non-denominational or neutral about “Happy Holidays” when the greeting is consistently offered in a sea of red and green. When you buy a Starbucks latte in a bright red holiday cup, or are handed a candy cane by your bank teller who wishes you “Happy Holidays,” you know very well the sentiment is not Happy Hanukkah or Happy Diwali, but Merry Christmas! When you go to Pier 1 and every scented candle smells like “mulled wine,” “pine needles,” and “peppermint crème,” you know you aren’t smelling Hanukkah or Kwanza: you’re smelling Christmas!
“Happy Holidays” and the culture that permeates the phrase, from neutral coffee cups, to inflatable reindeer in the shopping mall (as opposed to nativity scenes) are not symbols of inclusivity, they are slightly watered down odes to Christmas; a way in which well-meaning liberal Christians and corporations can have their Christmas cake and eat it, too. If it looks like Christmas, smells like Christmas and sounds like Christmas — it’s Christmas! So you might as well just come out and say it: Merry Christmas.
This doesn’t mean Jews, Muslims, Hindus and other groups who don’t celebrate the birth of Christ suffer a great injustice every time they go to the mall or the bank, or Pier 1 during the holidays. (As far as scented candles go, the only thing I can imagine grosser than a mulled wine candle is a candle that smells like Manischewitz). What we do experience, rather, is the illusion of inclusivity. Take greeting cards as a prime example. Almost every time I enter a mainstream greeting card store and ask where the Hanukkah cards are I am told the following — “We don’t have any Hanukkah-specific cards, but we do have several neutral, ‘Happy Holidays’ cards.” I am then pointed toward a stack of greeting cards that are awash in Christmas colours and decked out with snowmen, wreaths, stockings, gingerbread men — and all manner of sparkly things that are decidedly un-Kosher. “Happy Holidays” is not religion neutral; it is Christmas lite.
It is unrealistic and frankly unreasonable to expect stores to carry a wide variety of Hanukkah cards for what is a very small religious minority, just as it is unrealistic to expect businesses and community centres to adorn their walls with stars of David. But it isn’t the lack of non-Christmas-themed items and decorations I take umbrage with. It’s the phoney nod to religious pluralism; the belief that substituting a Christian phrase with a neutral one will neutralize the culture around it. It pains me greatly to write this, but perhaps where season greetings are concerned Donald Trump is correct.
Better a heartfelt "Merry Christmas" than a disingenuous "Happy Holidays."