There has been some controversy lately about whether store clerks should say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” to their customers. (Apparently three out of 10 Americans actually feel offended if someone wishes them “Happy Holidays.”) And a number of religious leaders and organizations have urged their followers to boycott companies that don’t exclusively emphasize Christmas. There is a fear — among some — that Christmas is being stamped out in favor of a vague fuzzy “winter holiday season.”
The problem I have with this interpretation is that “Happy Holidays” was never intended to exclude Jesus from Christmas — it was intended merely to be sensitive to people who aren’t Christians. Saying “Have a Merry Christmas” to every stranger you meet is to assume that none of them are Jews or Muslims or Hindus. “Happy Holidays” is a way to be respectful of our diverse culture, because it could mean Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah or Happy New Year ... or Happy Whatever-else-you-might-be-celebrating.
If I, as a Christian, am offended that a stranger might not know I’m a Christian — and thus might say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” — then I’m way too easily offended! Besides, why would I expect (or even want) a religious message from my bank or the mall? (Isn’t that what I go to church for?)
The real problem with this season, I think, is not that Christ has been taken out of it (the last I heard, Jesus is still being celebrated in millions of churches and homes across the country), but that too much materialism has been creeping into it. (Which is why I say: We don’t need to put Christ back into Christmas — we need to put Christmas back into December!)
So, when I see a stranger (i.e., someone whose religious beliefs or background I don’t know), I say “Happy Holidays.” It is meant to be a celebration of what we have in common, not a declaration of what divides us. If you hear me (or someone else) greet you this way, please don’t be offended; we are merely wishing you peace and joy for whatever holiday(s) you are celebrating.
The Rev. Dr. Tony Larsen is the pastor of Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church in Racine.