It’s the Most Politically Correct Time of the Year


I never thought to exert any effort addressing this topic, or worse yet subject you, my patient readers, to this dribble. Yet every time I think it’s gone away, it starts barking again. I recently posted a question about this on Facebook and got overwhelmed with the varied responses. Yes, I’m talking about the battle over Christmas.

Every year, this time of year, without fail, it goes something like this:

Do we have a Christmas Tree at the town square or a non-sectarian Holiday Tree? Do we put up a Nativity there, scrap it all together for lights and snowflakes, or maybe put up a Nativity alongside a Menorah and a Kwanzaa kinara? Oops… forgot to add the Festivus pole… oh yeah, and the Yule Log.

And of course, there’s the seasonal salutation question. Do we keep to a faithful “Merry Christmas” or offer an all-inclusive “Happy Holidays”? If we ask that, we might as well consider whether to boycott those ungodly, anti-Christian stores who refuse to acknowledge Christmas with that secular “Happy Holidays” garbage or perhaps shun the stores who sold out to the Bill O’Reilly evangelical fundamentalist right-wingers and now emblazon that bigoted “Merry Christmas” hate speech all over their stores. How oppressive!

You get the idea…

Now, just to turn down the heat with a reality check, let’s keep three things in mind.

First, Happy Holidays was originally shorthand for Merry Christmas and Happy New Years. While it’s become a polite, non-sectarian seasonal greeting for most people, some still use Happy Holidays as a catch-all for Christmas and New Years.

Second, the widespread celebration of Christmas with Santa Claus, decorations, Christmas Eve services, gift giving, and the whole nine yards is a fairly recent phenomenon. Ironically enough, 200 years ago, most Protestants could have cared less about Christmas or even wrote it off as a “papist” folly. Christmas is the Christ-Mass, after all. That’s why, historically speaking, it’s pretty amusing to hear us evangelical Christians coming to the rescue of a once-avoided Catholic feast day.

Third, for Jews and Christians, Christmas and Hanukkah are not the most important religious celebrations of the year, despite all the hoopla. For Christians, Easter Sunday is by far the foremost feast day, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And for a long time, the January 6 celebration of Epiphany was more prominent than Christmas. (I know some folks who out of principle purposefully still honor this.) For Jews, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most important day of the year, followed by Rosh Hashanah. Hanukkah, a far less important Jewish celebration, has earned a place of unintended cultural prominence for Jews living in the clang and clamor of Christmas, which again, once upon a time, was never all that important to a significant segment of Christendom.

So why all the fuss over Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays or whether or not it’s appropriate to have a Nativity on public property?

This is part and parcel of the ongoing culture wars. Looking at the scope of human history, the transitional years between major periods of history have always been politically, economically, and culturally turbulent. I believe we are in that time of turbulent transition from Modernity to the next thing. That’s why we speak of everything now as post—post-Enlightenment, post-Imperialism, post-Christendom, post-Western, postmodern. These are not definitive, concrete terms, only negations of what used to be, making way for the next thing. Meanwhile no one seems to know what that next thing is. Until the next thing comes, we get to endure the culture wars of our times, the struggle between what we conserve versus what we change or simply throw out.

The struggle over Christmas is over the identity of Christmas and the place of Christmas, among many other traditional things, in an increasingly pluralistic culture. When we see the bumper sticker slogan “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” we’re dealing with a strictly contemporary sentiment that would have seemed patently absurd to people just forty years ago. That’s recent past, really.

But there’s another oddity about our post-everything age. When dealing with cultural differences, we have set up an incongruent paradigm. It’s kind of funny, actually.

On the one side of this paradigm, it is increasingly poor manners to “judge” anyone or anything. Live and let live. I don’t have the right to tell you how you should live, what you should think, and what you should do, most especially if it doesn’t directly affect me. Nor do I have the right to enter your personal space with my values and beliefs without your explicit permission. Personal freedom, privacy, and tolerance are the basic, inviolate interrelational virtues of our day.

However, on the other side of the paradigm, we hold a fundamental right to never be offended. Maybe that’s why we get so cranky! Someone says or does something that clashes with my life and values, and I feel personally violated, as if what was said and done was explicitly intended to attack my personhood. For example, I wish you a Happy Holidays, and you might interpret that as my trivializing your Christian holiday or even your Christian faith. Or if I wish you a Merry Christmas, you might interpret that as a manipulative form of proselytizing. So much for tolerance. (For the record, I don’t know of anyone who ever became a born again believer or who was ever coerced into Christianity after being wished a Merry Christmas. And no, I don’t buy the argument that saying Merry Christmas is a necessary preservative of Christmas. Unpretentiously working in a homeless shelter on Christmas Day, however—now that’s preserving the gift of Christmas.)

So, we live in this paradigmatic tension of tolerance versus never offending or being offended.

Strangely enough I live with this same tension in the church culture. On the one hand, we mainline Protestants pride ourselves for practicing “Open Minds, Open Doors, and Open Hearts” (a recent United Methodist slogan). But on the other hand, the baseline question that drives the bulk of our decisions and behaviors is, “That won’t offend anyone, will it?” Unfortunately, all too seldom do we ask, “What is the right thing, the most holy thing, the most Christ-like thing?” Instead we walk on eggshells, neurotically sanitizing everything we say or do, lest this group or this person should get their panties in a bunch (oops, that last image might have offended someone!) and walk out… with checkbook in hand, of course.

Getting back to Christmas, all sides of the debate have made it a politically correct nightmare. Both Christians and non-Christians want tolerance but are offended when their sensibilities are violated. Christians cannot charge non-Christians and secularists with a politically correct tyranny of Happy Holidays and non-sectarian winter solstice festivities and at the same time turn around and demand carte blanche for Merry Christmas and Nativities. Both demand tolerance while simultaneously filing a public grievance over the cultural violations of the other.

So, how do we go forward? I think we need to ask a question to ourselves. We need to go beyond the question, “Can’t we all just get along?” That question asks for basic toleration, and toleration isn’t enough. We must ask ourselves, “How can I fully embrace the other, honoring them while remaining true to myself?” That doesn’t mean I agree with all they believe, do, or say. But I don’t have to let those incongruities bother me. Instead, I can appreciate them for the gift from God they are and the gifts from God they offer, and fully value and include them for that.

That would mean you could see me out on the street and wish me a Happy Holidays, a Happy Hanukkah, a Happy Kwanzaa, a Happy Winter Solstice, a Happy Christmakwanzukkah, or just a “Hey there, Chris!” and I would receive that as your blessing to me, and receive it with joy because I receive you with joy. At the same time, I could joyfully wish you a Merry Christmas in my excitement over the birth of Christ, and you would receive that and me for what they were intended to be: a blessing and a gift to you, however you choose to receive me.

All this would be a significant down payment on the angels’ proclamation to the shepherds of “…good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all the people” (Luke 2:10).

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11 Comments

Filed under Reflections

11 responses to “It’s the Most Politically Correct Time of the Year

  1. Just to clarify once again for the benefit of those who wonder whether they will offend anyone with Christmas displays and wishes of Merry Christmas, here is a handy checklist:

    (1) If it’s a publicly-owned space, government employee in an official capacity, or governmental entity — state capitol building, city hall, county offices, regional transport commission bus drivers, etc. — then make an effort to have a non-religious display. It’s called separation of church and state: taxpayer monies should not be spent on religious anything. (That’s the one bit I wish you had not skipped in your post, by the way.)

    (2) If it’s a church, your house, a private organization, or a club like the Optimists or the Freemasons, etc., then have at! No one can expect any different and in fact it may even be part of your mission.

    (3) If it’s a privately owned store or other business that can’t afford to turn away segments of its clientele, it’s up to you but consider the repercussions. You may want to hit a mid-point, with some inclusiveness and/or discretion. How much do you need to wave the religious flag at work? It’s your right, but that doesn’t mean some of your customers won’t be turned off. How about sticking to coloured lights and fir boughs without setting up an entire Nativity scene?

    Other than that, I personally have no objections to being told Merry Christmas around the last third of December or so. I say it too, and I mean it, even if we know that Jesus was probably not born around this time of year. It’s still a beautiful symbol, the light reborn in the darkest of night. But I also like to celebrate with my friends who observe other holidays, and I’m happy to participate as much as I can in the various celebrations, religious and secular.

    The one party I will not attend, though, is the “No-holiday-but-my-holiday, we’re-so-oppressed party.” From any group. Should I hear anyone saying “I celebrate the Winter Solstice – thus that is ‘Happy Solstice’ for me. I will wish other faiths whatever they want, or don’t want. But don’t even try and say anything to me about MY right to use words to mean EXACTLY what I feel!”, then I will tell my Wiccan friends that they’re being big babies.

    • Sophie, I firmly believe in the First Amendment, both Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. At the same time, the government is we the people and so it should honor and reflect all of us. So instead of nothing in the public square this time of year or preferential treatment of one religion, why don’t we honor them all? I see public schools doing that. For example, at Jacob’s Infants and Toddlers Holiday party hosted by Prince George’s County Public Schools, a very diverse school district, they kids sang seasonal cultural songs like Jingle Bells. They also sang Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa songs, too. At the coloring station, they had gingerbread men, Menorahs, Nativity scenes and Kwanzaa kinaras to color. It was a really rich experience that honored everyone. I think that’s the way to go and a lot less neurotic than this bland, sanitary “holiday” stuff that tries so hard not to offend but results in reflecting no one.

      • “For example, at Jacob’s Infants and Toddlers Holiday party hosted by Prince George’s County Public Schools…”

        But isn’t that the evil thing that we keep hearing people complain about? “Holiday Party?” That’s a very “War On Christmas”y sort of name. Many would object that Prince George’s County Public Schools are giving in and being politically correct by using such a generic term. Where is the “Christ” in their “Christmas?”

        “I think that’s the way to go and a lot less neurotic than this bland, sanitary “holiday” stuff that tries so hard not to offend but results in reflecting no one.”

        Promoting the idea of a “holiday party” and then saying that use of the term “holiday” is bland and neurotic is somewhat confusing.

        Here’s what I think: if you know the particular religious (or non-religious) affiliation of the person you are speaking to, then that’s the holiday you should speak to. I should wish you a merry Christmas because I know the Christmas holiday is personally and spiritually meaningful to you, even if it isn’t to me. You should wish me a happy Pancha Ganapati because that’s what Sophie and I are celebrating this year (admittedly we are a bit hard to allow for because we switch off some years – but I think I can safely say that we are an exception in that regard rather than the rule).

        If you don’t know the religious (or non-religious) affiliation of the person you are speaking to, then don’t guess and don’t impose your biases on them. Wish them a happy holiday and let it go at that.

      • I’m happy to go for diversity, but you’re the one who was bringing up the angst of wondering whether anyone was forgotten, whether anyone will complain about the missing Yule log or Festivus pole (and, for my part, whether tokenism is avoided, i.e., whether the balance is reasonable.) And it sure won’t please the people who declare that it’s Merry Christmas or nothing for them.

        *shrug*

      • I think you may be assuming that I’m upset at Happy Holidays or that it diminishes my faith. I’m not. I was just lifting up the various approaches people take. What I do have a problem with is that we have to settle for a lowest common denominator lest anyone be offended. As for the public square thing, I say, display it all, and if someone’s religious tradition somehow gets left out, let them speak up, and we’ll include it. But again, it’s the neurotic attitude of no one getting offended that bothers me. Let’s celebrate our diversity because we value people, not because we’re afraid of people thinking we’re prejudicial if we don’t. In my experience, the latter tends to be the most prominent motivator.

  2. I’ll do a short form of my comment on Facebook.

    I don’t think that a holiday greeting should be about you. I think it should be about the person you are greeting. And you should make every effort to make the greeting as personally meaningful to them as possible. Why? Because it is kinder to offer a greeting that is meaningful to the person you are greeting than it is to offer a greeting that is personally meaningful to you.

    That means that if your next door neighbor is a Muslim, you wish them a happy Eid. If your co-worker is Jewish you wish them a happy Hanukkah. If that guy on your bowling team is a pagan, you wish them a happy Solstice.

    And if you don’t know, you try to be inclusive and wish them happy holidays. Because this is America, and people believe many different things, and it is entirely possible that their family celebrates Kwanza, Save the Eagles day, and Chinese New Year.

    Wishing someone a merry Christmas when they aren’t Christian is like giving your spouse a set of Space Marine minis that you want for Christmas instead of laser level and construction calculator she asked for.

    • Ed, how about a compromise and do both… If we’re truly about free expression and mutual tolerance and respect, why not greet one another in multiple ways. For example, I have Indian friends, and when they celebrate Diwali, I wish them a Happy Diwali, and they have invited me to enjoy Diwali with them, too. Diwali candles are beautiful, by the way. At Christmas time, we wish each other a Merry Christmas, and have exchanged gifts before, too. The key to all this is mutual respect. We’re not threatened by one another, and so we share it all. I’m not a Hindu, and they are not Christians, but we can embrace and celebrate one another.

      • Well, your response is great for you and I, but what about that person at the department store – the one there on a temp holiday job whom you have never laid eyes on before, and who is displaying no particular religious iconography to indicate preference?

      • Actually, Ed, I worked retail through my second two years of high school and most of college, so I worked through a good number of Christmas shopping seasons. This may sound terribly terribly blasphemous to some, but I really offered no particular holiday-themed greeting until pretty close to Christmas Day. And then, yes, I wished people a Merry Christmas. It wasn’t a protest thing or an effort to push anything on anyone. It was simply me being me, and at no time in all those years did anyone get offended. And believe me, people are pretty stressed and grumpy then, so if there was offense to be taken, I would have gotten an earful. To this day, I do the same thing. Now, if I see someone I see a Muslim woman wearing a head covering or a Jewish man with a yarmulke, then no, I’m not going to be obnoxious with it or say Merry Christmas just to make a point. I mean, c’mon… But, all in all, the kind of world I want to live in by living into it now is that we can be and share ourselves as we honor, respect, and receive each other. So, like I sad, however one wants to greet me is fine with me. I’m not offended by Happy Holidays or see it as a war on my faith or on Christmas. I’m saddened that we have to settle for a lowest common denominator so that no one is offended. That’s my only “gripe” with it, and it’s not really a gripe, at that.

  3. d'Alex

    Nephew – you speak of being politically correct, which implies government, for government and politics are intertwined. In the USA, December 25th (or if on a weekend day, the closest weekday) has been declared by the US Congress to be a Holiday…known as Christmas Day. No other “religious” holiday as been so declared by politics. In general, that means that if one works on that ‘holiday” day, you get paid – generally double time. (I know that it is a workday of sorts for you, but you do spend a very limited time working that day.) Where I work, folks who work (and many have to, due to the nature of what we do) get double time. Everyone gets that pay, whether the day means anything to them or not. When we work on any other ‘religious’ day, we get straight pay, or if we take the day off – that’s annual leave. So, things are not equal in any political sense. I don’t have a problem with anyone displaying whatever they want, but if the common money (ie -tax dollars) are spent, then everyone has to be included. If individuals are offended, then they have the right to have their opinion heard. At least they do in the USA – not so in many other places around the globe. But on December 25th when I come to pajama service to be with Jacob and Grace, I’ll wish you, Blairlee, the kiddies and anyone else I see a “Merry Christmas”. Just as on December 24th, when I go to Mass, I’ll be doing the same.

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