That time of year is here again… the time of the annual argument about whether ’tis better to wish people a merry Christmas or happy holidays. Opinions are strong on both sides of the issue and believe me, for some of us it is a huge one. Every year I am torn between voicing my feelings and risking the possibility of hurting feelings of people whom I love and respect. This year, I’ll take the chance to share my thoughts here and trust that readers will understand it is offered in the spirit of simple explanation.
Growing up in a Jewish family, my memories of childhood include Christmas plays and Christmas parties at school. These were and continue to be decoration displays in every conceivable public space, Christmas music playing through every public speaker starting in Thanksgiving and going through the beginning of the new year and the usual inquiries from total strangers about whether or not I’ve begun my Christmas shopping. The result has always been a feeling of complete invisibility as a non-Christian throughout the holiday season. The worst was when people would make comparisons and refer to Hanukkah as the Jewish Christmas as if somehow that made it easier for us to feel more a part of the dominant culture. Messages of “merry Christmas” continue to leave me feeling assaulted by an assumption that everyone celebrates the holiday, an assumption that the holiday is universal, and most importantly the assumption that everyone is Christian. The people to whom I wish a happy anything are people that I know and my messages are specific to them and what I know they observe/celebrate. I don’t wish other people a happy birthday when it is my birthday or a happy anniversary of a special event that is my own.
When I am wished a “merry Christmas”, what I hear is, “Enjoy your celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, our lord and savior, the son of god”. After all, isn’t that what the celebration of Christmas is all about? When I am wished a happy holiday, what I hear is, “Wishing you happiness in the celebration of all that brings you joy”. There is a big difference between these two messages. The first is exclusive while the other is inclusive.
I don’t believe there is ever any malicious intent on the part of folks who extend their messages. In fact, I believe their messages are extended with very positive intentions without the knowledge of how they may be received. As activists, one of our prime responsibilities is to educate our communities. About 10 years ago, when the December newsletter at my job was being assembled, there was the usual short paragraph wishing a merry Christmas and happy Hanukkah to everyone. Having defined myself as Pagan by that time, I added the following to our newsletter in hope of sparking awareness of diversity among us:
Winter Solstice is the time of year when the day is shortest and the night is longest, usually arriving on December 21. It has been celebrated throughout history in many cultures and in many ways. It marks the end of the shortening of days and looks ahead to the gradual return of days that are longer, warmer and brighter with the return of sun-filled hours.
At our house, Winter Solstice is celebrated with an outdoor fire, representing the sun that is about to return more abundantly. Standing around the fire, we gather to offer memories of the past year and wishes for the new. The observance of the Solstice reminds us that life is circular. Just as Summer will follow Winter, light will follow dark and warmth will follow cold, we believe that good times will ultimately follow difficult times and happiness will return after times of sadness.
Winter Solstice is a time to remember that our gardens will blossom again, fresh fruit will appear on the trees and the earth, which seems deadened by Winter’s cold, will reawaken and offer beauty and sustenance again come Spring.
I honor diversity. I respect traditions that are not my own. I wish my family and friends the greatest of celebrations of the holidays and markers of time that are significant to them. What I am hoping for is a universal respect for diversity and an understanding that people have a need to feel their identity and way of celebrating life is every bit as special and recognized as any other. I will consider it a miracle when a stranger wishes me a blessed Solstice but I don’t anticipate that will happen any time soon.To each of you, I wish you wonderful days of strength, community, love and a spirituality that brings you to a place of completeness. Blessed be! And happy holidays!