Those poor, poor Christians. Only three out of every four people in this country are Christian, so it’s easy to imagine how lonely and ostracized they must feel! Especially around Christmastime, when Christmas decorations adorn every store and shopping plaza, Christmas carols play on the radio incessantly, the President lights an enormous National Christmas Tree, and nativity displays pop up in front of town halls across the country. So, it’s understandable that Christians feel really persecuted by mainstream American society at this time of year. [/sarcasm]
This whole “Grinch Alert” garbage has got me thinking about euphemisms for “Merry Christmas.” People occasionally say “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” in order to sound more inclusive. Christians are pissed off at this, taking it as evidence of an increasingly secular society — so does that mean it’s an atheist victory?
My answer is an emphatic no. First, Christians shouldn’t be upset about hearing “Merry Christmas” euphemisms. They’re hardly euphemistic at all, and certainly don’t represent a turning of American culture away from the dominating force of Christianity.
Let’s take a look at Happy Holidays first. Honestly, as a kid, I thought that “Happy holidays” was a shorthand way of saying “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” Two holidays, Christmas and New Year’s — thus, “holidays” plural. Maybe the phrase refers broadly to all the celebrations of “the holiday season” — and I’ll talk about this more later. But perhaps most people who say it intend to be inclusive of Christmas and Chanukah. When shops use it in their promotions, it’s because there are two gift-giving holidays that happen in December, and they want to attract customers who celebrate either (or both) of them. It’s not a failure to recognize Christmas; it’s a recognition that there is another holiday in the month of December, in addition to Christmas. (I realize facts do offend Christians from time to time, but they really shouldn’t. Jews exist. It’s nothing personal.) When individuals wish you “Happy holidays,” ask yourself: do they know what religion you are? In almost every situation, “Happy holidays” could be translated to “Merry Christmas, unless you’re Jewish, in which case Happy Chanukah I guess, if it hasn’t already passed.” The baseline assumption is still that you are celebrating some religious holiday at this time of year. Hardly an atheist victory.
The other popular euphemism-that-wasn’t is Season’s Greetings. Now, that sounds nice and secular. It’s just some festive wintertime salutations! Nothing religious about that! Except… we don’t send autumn greetings, summer greetings, or spring greetings. Why would we send special winter greetings? Well, because the “season” being referred to here isn’t the winter season, it’s the Christmas season. Also known as the holiday season, effectively synonymous when you take into account that 75% of the US population is Christian, and the other December holiday of Chanukah is celebrated by less than 2%. Also, while Chanukah is fun, celebrations of it don’t spread from November through early January the way that Christmas does. There’s no “Chanukah season.” Whether or not you say “Christmas” in your greetings, it’s immediately apparent that that’s what you’re referring to.
So I just don’t get why Christians get all worked up about people using another phrase that obviously still means “Merry Christmas.” Guys, you haven’t lost anything. English is a rich language with many different ways of expressing closely related ideas. We’re using them. That’s all.
And by the same token, atheists shouldn’t be wasting their energy trying to promote these sayings. One possibility is that the case at hand concerns a private entity like a business or an individual, who gets to decide how to communicate with others as best serves their own interests — and in this situation, they have every right to say “Merry Christmas” if they want to. You don’t have to shop in a store decked out for a holiday you don’t celebrate if that makes you uncomfortable, but if a store owner decides that’s the best way to maximize profits, so be it. The other possibility is that you’re dealing with a governmental entity. In this case, saying “Happy Holidays” is still an endorsement of religion — seriously, best case, it’s an endorsement of two religions instead of just one. Not a win for secularism by any stretch of the imagination. And to the extent that “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” are effectively the same thing as “Merry Christmas,” you’re just encouraging people to pretend not to endorse Christianity while still obviously endorsing Christianity. That’s one tiny step forward, and quite a few big steps back.