Why ‘Merry Christmas’ is better than ‘Happy Holidays’ for Americans of all faiths

'Happy Holidays' does nothing to change the privilege that Christians enjoy in the United States.

Photo by Sean Ferigan/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — On Mike Huckabee’s “Christmas in America” TV special, which aired on NewsMax this week, the talk show host interviews Donald Trump about the former president’s supposed Christmas miracle: convincing everyone in America to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.”

“We said, ‘Don’t shop at stores that don’t say Merry Christmas,'” Trump tells Huckabee, “and we brought it back very quickly.” 

Trump’s alleged restoration of the phrase hasn’t stopped a seasonal ritual that you can almost set your watch by. Not long after that day in October when the inflatable lawn Santas arrive at Costco, or the night in November when you notice the downtown business district awash in twinkling wreaths and ribbons, comes the moment when millions of American Christians rediscover “the War on Christmas.”

This manufactured crisis foresees the imminent demise of Christianity in the U.S. and laments its harbinger: the generic greeting “Happy Holidays.”

They’re wrong, of course, about American Christianity’s imminent demise. On the contrary, there have been few moments in U.S. history when Christianity has been more weaponized in service of conservative political causes. Two landmark cases now before the U.S. Supreme Court have put signal evangelical Christian issues — allowing public money to be used for religious schools, and giving states control over women’s most private health care choices — closer to the legal and political goal line than they’ve been for decades.

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But the “War on Christmas” crowd gets one thing a little bit right: the United States has flubbed its growing religious diversity, particularly in the way we recognize and celebrate one another’s holidays. We’ve recognized religious diversity by downplaying Christian celebrations precisely in the times and places where they do belong.

A too-common response to growing communities of Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, not to mention the religiously unaffiliated, has been to cross out Christmas and substitute “Holiday,” as if the solution was to simply ignore religion. We’ve taken December traditions at schools and workplaces around the country that used to be called the Christmas concert and the Christmas party and rebranded them the “winter concert” and “holiday party.”

In so doing, we have created false equivalencies and trivialized religious diversity.

Greeting everyone with “Happy Holidays” at Christmastime disrespects and dilutes the meaning of Christmas without making religious minorities feel authentically included. At the same time, it creates resentment among Christians, who long for the Christmas concerts of old and worry that Christmas’ sacred aspects are disappearing.

They may even associate these losses with their coworkers or neighbors who attend the new mosque or gurdwara down the street, an association that drives a wedge between communities rather than bringing them together.

One of the most destructive paradigms of the last few decades has been the idea that more religious diversity should mean less talk about religion, rather than embracing our different faiths and discussing them.

“Happy Holidays,” a greeting that grew to encompass both Christmas and the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, actually shows the power of Christianity to flatten the culture of minority religious faiths. In the U.S., Hanukkah gained status during the post-WWII suburbanization and integration of white America due to its proximity on the calendar to Christmas. It also became Christianized: The tradition of giving small treats to children was transformed into gift-giving to mimic the presents under Christmas trees.

Saying “Happy Holidays” is a fine idea if your career — say, as a receptionist or retail staff — involves interacting mostly with people you do not know at all. But in our social spheres — work, school, neighborhood — we should know our colleagues, customers, friends and neighbors well enough to know their religion, and therefore what to say to them.

So let’s say “Merry Christmas.” Let’s also expect folks to know when and why to say Happy Diwali, Eid Mubarak, Happy Vaisakhi or gong hai fat choy and when to wish our Jewish colleagues a “happy New Year” or an “easy fast.” Throughout the year, greet and speak to people of other faiths in their own time and on their own terms. This is what authentic inclusion looks like.

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Brushing a thin veneer of inclusion over the dominance of Christmas by saying “Happy Holidays” does nothing to change the privileges that Christians enjoy in the United States, at this time of year or any other. Christianity already permeates all facets of our society and our laws. An even-handed silence that ignores that fact only perpetuates it and creates the illusion that that power is flagging when it is not. 

Now and in every season, we can meet the American promise of religious diversity and inclusion, but not by lumping our holidays together with generic greetings. There is no real “war on Christmas,” but let’s still forge a lasting peace that celebrates the religious holidays, rituals and practices of all Americans. Merry Christmas!

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