November 30, 2005

"Merry Christmas" or "Season's Greetings"?

In a comment to a previous post on Thanksgiving and Christmas, John made an interesting observation. He said that, given his reading of my political and religious leanings from my blog, he was surprised that I had used the term "Christmas shopping season" instead of the more generic "holiday shopping season," since I am obviously not a religious person.

I must admit that I was taken by surprise by his comment. I had written "Christmas" season almost without thinking because I see it as such. But perhaps I should not have been surprised because I am also aware of how touchy the issue of Christmas has become.

For example, a silly person named John Gibson has actually written a book called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. And Bill O'Reilly, who can always be depended on to waste his outrage on the trivial, has declared that he is going to "save" Christmas by bringing back the greeting "Merry Christmas" and fighting those stores that have promotions saying "Season's Greetings" and "Happy Holidays." A guest on his show suggested that these more generic greetings do not offend Christians, to which O'Reilly replied "Yes, it does. It absolutely does. And I know that for a fact. But the smart way to do it is "Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Season's Greetings, Happy Kwanzaa."

Meanwhile, Jerry Falwell, in a fierce competition with Pat Robertson for the Religious Doofus of the Year award, says that he too is fighting to save that holy holiday and that he'll sue and boycott groups that he sees as muzzling Christmas. Finishing a strong third for that same award:

American Family Association President Tim Wildmon,...wants to see "Merry Christmas" signs displayed prominently "if they expect Christians to come in and buy products during this so-called season."

And he isn't worried if they offend people who aren't Christian.

"They can walk right by the sign," Wildmon said. "It's a federal holiday. If someone is upset by that, well, they should know that they are living in a predominantly Christian nation."

So John was quite justified in being puzzled as to why, in this climate, I was so casually tossing the word Christmas around when everyone seems to be so touchy about it.

To be quite honest, I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I see people like Gibson and O'Reilly and Falwell and Wildmon getting into a lather about what is the proper thing to say at Christmas. How can adults waste their time on the trivial when there is so much other stuff to think about?

As for me personally, I just can't take this matter seriously. I have never been offended by other people's religious beliefs. Perhaps it was because I grew up in a multi-religious society, had friends of other faiths, and celebrated their religious holidays as well as my own. It does not offend me in the least when people wish me greetings that are specific to their own religious traditions or in some neutral terms. What is the sense in being offended by someone who is wishing you well? The words do not matter in the least. It is the sentiment behind it that is important.

I have always liked Christmas as a holiday, especially its focus on children, and its message of promoting peace and goodwill among people. I am glad that even people who do not share its religious orientation still share in the peace and goodwill message. I do not appreciate the fact that it has become largely a merchandizing tool.

I simply do not care how other people view Christmas or how they express their views and it amazes me that some people are using it as yet another means of waging a cultural war. Why are some people so touchy? When someone wishes me "Season's Greetings," I take that as a thoughtful gesture of friendship and caring and I am touched by the sentiment. The same goes if they wish me "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hanukkah" or "Happy Kwanzaa" or "Happy Solstice" or any other greeting from any other religion. I return the greeting in kind, even if I am not a believer in that faith, because all that such an exchange signifies is that two people wish each other well. If someone says to me "Merry Christmas" and I reply "Same to you," this is not an affirmation of faith any more than "Season's Greetings" is an act of hostility to religion. To take such greetings as a challenge to one's beliefs and start a fight over it is to demonstrate churlishness to a ridiculous degree. O'Reilly and his partners in this stupid battle need to grow up.

I am talking here about how the holiday is interpreted in the private sphere of person-to-person interactions. If some company puts advertisements in the paper and tells its employees to greet customers by saying "Season's Greetings," why should it offend me? The same thing if they order their employees to say "Merry Christmas" instead. That is not something that bothers me, because such mandated greetings are not borne out of personal care and concern but are just marketing tools and are meaningless in terms of content and intent, whatever the words used. It is in the same category as the mandated "Have a nice day." You can always tell, by the eyes, the tone of voice, and the smile (or lack of it) if the person is genuinely being friendly or simply saying it because it is required. The actual words are immaterial.

If Bill O'Reilly gets all warm and tingly when a store employee is forced to say "Merry Christmas" to him and gets angry when that same employee is forced to say "Season's Greetings," then he is a man in need of serious therapy because he clearly cannot distinguish the real from the counterfeit. I hate to be the one who breaks the news but he should realize that the employee probably does not care for him personally, whatever the greeting.

The question becomes different when we talk of the public sphere because then we are talking about the government taking an official stand on religion and this raises tricky political and constitutional issues. There it seems to me to be appropriate to be scrupulously religiously neutral because I am a believer that a secular public sphere is the one most likely to lead to peace and harmony between diverse groups. Governments are supposed to be representatives of everyone and to single out one particular religion or ethnicity for preferential treatment is to create discord.

But when it comes to private exchanges between people, we should all relax and let people express their good feelings for one another in whatever way they choose and are most comfortable with and not try to make it into a battle for religious supremacy. You can always tell when people genuinely mean well and when they are pushing an agenda, whatever the actual words used. We should learn to accept the former gracefully and ignore the latter.

POST SCRIPT: A Parable of Iraq

Tom Tomorrow has another good cartoon.


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Yay! You are very right about the value of the intent over the content of a greeting. The words "Good morning" used to be used as both a greeting and a dismissal at the end of a morning encounter, and the way the words were said communicated to the recipient not only which way the greeting was used (to greet or dismiss), but also how the speaker felt about the recipient. The words themselves were a delivery tool, not the delivery themselves.

Anyway. :-) Hope you had a good Thanksgiving break!

Posted by Liz V on November 30, 2005 03:57 PM

I agree that many people do take it too far on both sides. But sometimes it does feel like that saying Merry Christmas is a bad thing. And when you encroach on a persons faith they always take in personally which is why I think it is made into such a big deal when we have soo much more to worry about. I think both sides need to find some middle ground. I also thank you for answering my question.

Posted by John on November 30, 2005 11:44 PM

Funny that we end up having to restate this every year. Thanks.

Posted by carlos zapato on December 15, 2006 06:19 PM

I would say this is really thougt provoking article. I think the person who says merry christmas or good morning may be because of many reasons (like he may be a shopkeeper,receptionist etc...) but the other person will always take it personally.

Posted by gift baskets on May 14, 2008 10:01 AM

And here it comes again... Christmas is fast approaching for 2009 and here we go again with our 'correct' greetings.

I liked it when you said... "what is the proper thing to say at Christmas. How can adults waste their time on the trivial when there is so much other stuff to think about?"

We should all know by now that a nice greeting is exactly that and may as well take it as that and move on to more meaningful ways to spend our energy.

Lets hope it's with peace and goodwill to men and women.


Posted by Liz on October 25, 2009 02:55 PM

Hopefully the issue will not rise up again in 2010!

I believe for many people Christmas is a time of year that brings out feelings of peace, joy and good will toward men. The greetings they use, whichever they might be, are just a reflection of those feelings.

Peace on Earth!

Posted by Peace for All on May 26, 2010 12:38 PM

Quote "...when it comes to private exchanges between people, we should all relax and let people express their good feelings for one another..." This is the essence of a good person. Harmony should always prevail whatever the situation is.

Posted by hampers on September 19, 2011 09:41 PM