Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

That thing some people call "political correctness"

I've been following the "destruction of Christmas" debate in the U.S. this year with some interest. It raises its ugly head every year, of course, but all the lawsuits add a certain twist that somehow makes it that much more sordid. And I'm struck by something: are the "you should say 'happy holidays' instead of 'merry Christmas'" people not missing the point just as badly as the "saying 'happy holidays' instead of 'merry Christmas' is destroying Christmas" people?

I mean, if you assume--and say--that a little girl is someday going to have a husband, people (justifiably) call that heterocentrism. Making the same statement and replacing the single word 'husband' with 'man by her side' doesn't fix this, because the real problem wasn't the use of the word 'husband', but the fact that they assumed that if this girl was going to become partnered, it was going to be with a guy. Isn't putting up a Christmas tree and calling it a "holiday tree" pretty much the same thing? Some cultural groups don't celebrate any holidays in December. Some of the cultural groups that celebrate holidays in December celebrate much more meaningful holidays at other times. Calling December "the holiday season" doesn't fix the problem of those cultural groups feeling marginalized at this time of year; if anything, it exacerbates it.
Someone else's culture is still someone else's culture, even when it's got a faux-inclusive name slapped on it.

If someone celebrates Christmas, I wish them a Merry Christmas when that time grows close. If someone celebrates Hanukkah, I wish them a Happy Hanukkah when that time rolls around (but I also wish them l'shanah tovah during Rosh Hashanah in the fall, which is a far more important holiday in Jewish culture). If I don't know, or if they don't celebrate anything, I just say "have a nice long weekend" or "have a nice time off." The basic point isn't "let's turn Christmas into something devoid of all religious meaning," but "don't assume everybody out there celebrates the same holidays you do." Is that really so hard?


Matt said...

Spot on! Of course, from a public policy perspective, the question becomes whether it is better to continue to put up the Christmas Tree in public spaces in December, and also add public acknowledgements of other religious festivals throughout the year, or get rid of all such symbols/celebrations from the public sphere entirely.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I can see how that could be an issue, but isn't it really up to the individual stores/municipalities? They're going to offend somebody regardless of what they do, so let them make their own beds.

That said, if it were up to me, I'd probably lose the holiday-specific decorations altogether and spend the money on something more practical. But that's a pragmatist for you. :-)

Matt said...

I was thinking more in terms of places like city halls and legislative buildings (which look really nice when decked out with Christmas lights), where it becomes a question of a state-sponsored recognition of a religious holiday. Stores can do whatever they please.

KevinG said...

Excellent post. Yes they are missing the point just as badly.

Two years ago I saw an example of people who didn't miss the point.

My daughter attended a Montessori pre-school. It was held in classrooms attached to a Jewish Synagogue. Her teacher was Muslim. The kids were a mixture of all three religions.

In December, in a Jewish Synagogue, lead in part by a Muslim teacher, the kids performed a Christmas play. It wasn't forced on anyone. All the parents knew and attended. The kids asked questions and got answers.

The kids also learned about Hanukkah, Ramadan, Rosh Hashanah and important dates.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


That's lovely. There's something quite positive about participating in someone else's culture when it's acknowledged that it's someone else's culture, isn't there?

Robert McClelland said...

There are no "you should say 'happy holidays' instead of 'merry Christmas'" people. There are only those who think everyone should say Merry Christmas. It's a one sided war that only exists in the minds of the right.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I think you may have just called me right-wing. (Which is far more offensive than wishing me a Merry Christmas on December 25th. ;-)

Seriously, though, maybe that was a simplistic way of putting it, but there are many people who try to make Christmas a more inclusive holiday by slapping "happy holidays" on their Christmas decorations. And they may mean well, but they're not actually making anyone feel less marginalized. Real respect for cultural diversity requires a little more thought than that.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's left over from when I was in school, but I do think of that time as the holiday season. Not because I believe that everyone celebrates holidays then (my family doesn't), but because I'm used to everyone having holiday time then. At least to the same extent than one can consider the August and September long weekends holidays, because not everyone actually gets that time off.

I don't get offended when I'm wished a Merry Christmas. But it drives me crazy when people ask about Christmas shopping as small talk. Because I really have no interest in explaining to the person at the bank all the reasons why I don't have Christmas shopping.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I don't get offended when I'm wished a Merry Christmas, but I do say: "I actually don't celebrate Christmas, but Merry Christmas to you." You can make people think a lot more if you don't piss them off.

I'm definitely with you on the Christmas shopping thing, though.

LeoPetr said...

Actually, there are 'happy holidays' people out there. Not that many, but they exist. I read a reader letter in the Toronto Star a month ago suggesting that the Star's Santa Claus Fund be renamed because, even though the reader wasn't offended by the ostensibly Christian origin of the 'Santa Claus' moniker, there might be others who are.


Mike said...


I gotta side with Robert on this. Personally I could care less - Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays - it makes no difference to me. Unless I know ther eperson to be Jewish or Muslim or another non-Christian religion, I ill usually say "Happy Holidays" since we are all having a holiday. When I run into Christians, and members of my family raised on the tradition (though no longer Christians) I says "Merry Christmas".

Usually its no big deal. Sadly though, most of the hassle I see are from fundementalist Christians upset at "Happy Holidays", and rearely if ever, people upset about "Merry Christmas"

Ironic too since holiday means "holy day". Doubly ironic when you consider that having a festival or holiday at or near the Winter Solstice has been prevalent in every culture for thousands of years, pre-dating Christianity. More irony that everything we in the west associate with Christmas - Santa, Christmas Trees, holly, ivy, Yule logs ,presents under the tree, even the saviour being born of a virgin in a stable (see Dyonisis and Mithras) - originated in those pagan, pre-chrisian.

In other words, Christmas is the way it is at the time of year it is because Christians did to pagan festivals EXACTLY what they are accusing the 'Happy Holiday' crowd of doing today - changing their festival and coopting it for their own.

Yes that's a nice bit of irony there.

Anyway, it hardly matters, the spirit of togetherness and giving is the same. Lets celebrate that and not try to make saying something other than 'Merry Christmas' at this time of year an indication that 'Christianity is under attack' on as evidence of further persecution of Christians.

Remember, Jesus was probably actually born on April 17, 6 BCE.

So, Merry Ho ho!

Anonymous said...

IP, way to raise some debate! I plead guilty to all charges against me for saying 'Merry Christmas'. A pseudo-endorsement of x-tian culture to some, but to me, mere habit. I didn't grow up in a religious house and am not religious now, so I'm in no way thumping. I equate my use of the expression 'Merry Christmas' to 'Happy Birthday'. I have not modified the sentence for JWs or SDAs to say 'Great tides and humble recognition of this anniversary of your birth', even if they don't recognize this festival. I have simply used the expression as a default to encompass one simple notion 'Enjoy your day'. So for 'Merry Christmas', it's my compact way of saying 'Seasons Greetings', 'Enjoy the pre-January vacation', or what have you. (Which reminds me, do you say 'Happy New Year' to Ukrainians, Russians and Chinese people on January 1st? It's a similar example, no?)
That said, I despiste nativity scenes. Merry Christmas is one thing, but a plaster of paris Mother Mary is just hideous! I went for a stroll through the legislature building last night. Downstairs, at the Interpretation Centre on the far North side, there's a huge nativity scene with the works. Check it out. Talk about christiancentrism!

Declan said...

"don't assume everybody out there celebrates the same holidays you do." Is that really so hard?"

I'm with the Arrogant P on this one, I don't see wishing someone a Merry Christmas any different from wishing them a Happy Thanksgiving - even if they come from the Southern hemisphere and their harvest normally occurs in the spring.

While I agree with you that Happy Holidays is no logical improvement on Merry Christmas, your proposed solution would seem to put the onus on me to keep track of all the various celebratory preferences of all my friends and acquaintances (when is their new year, do they celebrate birthdays, do they recognize Easter, are they patriotic, are they from one of the allied countries (WWII), do they have their harvest in the fall, do they get civic holidays off, do they celebrate the equinoxes, etc.) and only offer some kind of greeting of I know the appropriate comment for the appropriate situation, remaining silent otherwise.

I guess I'm just not quite that multi-cultural. I say Merry Christmas (and I'm not at all religious) to anyone who hasn't told me not to and nobody ever has expressed any irritation, with people likely accepting their non-Christmas celebrating minority status in the same understanding manner that I accept my minority left-handed status when I reach across my body to sign documents at the bank.

In a way, I think it is more exclusionary not to wish someone a Merry Christmas (unless they've told you not to).

I know that if I was in a Muslim country I would feel more accepted if people invited me to fast with them during Ramadan, rather than seeing my pale skin and assuming I wanted nothing to do with their culture.

BTW: I wouldn't want to live in a town where you were in charge of the decorating committee!

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


All right, how on earth is it exclusionary not to wish someone a Merry Christmas? If I say to my students "have a terrific break" rather than "Merry Christmas," who is going to feel excluded by that?

Declan said...

"who is going to feel excluded by that?"

People who hear you wishing others a Merry Christmas and think that you aren't saying it to them because you are making some assumption that they don't celebrate Christmas based on their religion/skin colour/ethnic origin / etc.

Plus, if some of your students have to work at a job over the holidays, er, gap between end of classes and resumption of classes, they may feel your use of the word 'break' is inappropriate.

Just because *you* are well enough off that you don't have to work during the gap between the end and resumption of classes doesn't mean everyone is so lucky.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Ah, okay, I see what you're assuming. It doesn't tend to work out that way in practice, though--I don't tend to know any of my undergraduates well enough to know what they celebrate, so it's unlikely they'll hear me wishing anyone a Merry Christmas (or anything else) unless they happen to be around me while I'm with one of my friends.

Incidentally, I do work over the "break"--it's one of the only times I get to concentrate on 40% of my job. It's nonetheless a "break" from the routine of normal classes, though, as it is for every last one of my students.