Wednesday, December 9, 2009

All Your Holiday Are Belong to Us

I posted a version of the following as a comment on the blog A Majority of Two, in response to Jo's post "Christmas ... What's in a Name?" I've read A Majority of Two with pleasure before, but was startled, almost shocked, by some of Jo's remarks, which seemed to me amazingly obtuse.

She began, of course, by stressing her tolerance and goodwill.
I am always happy to share my tradition of Christmas, just as I am honored to be invited to share the traditions of Diwali, Ramadan, Chanukah, and all the wonderful other traditions that each culture has nurtured over the centuries. One of my favorite events of the year is the Chinese New Year here in Vancouver. One year I had the honor of being invited to share Chinese New Year with a Chinese family. We went to a gorgeous Chinese restaurant, and all the little boys wore ties, and the little girls wore red velvet dresses with white lace collars. It is an experience I will always treasure.
There has been a movement in the past decade or so to make Christmas all-inclusive, to call it "holiday" and to expunge any reference to Christmas. Well, Christmas has always been inclusive -- never exclusive. Changing the name to "holiday" does not change the inclusivity of Christmas. It belongs to everyone, but it is still Christmas. How on earth did we allow Christmas to become politically incorrect?
Like everyone else in America, probably, I've heard about the bogus "War on Christmas," but I hadn't encountered this take on it before, at least not stated so baldly. Maybe it was subtext, or I wasn't paying close enough attention. Maybe this is the paranoid fantasy that underlies the "War on Christmas" legend: They're trying to stop you from celebrating Christmas even in your own home, even in your own church! Even in your church, you must say "Holiday" instead of "Christmas"! But I was surprised to hear it from Jo, who even when I disagree with her still seems basically level-headed.

All of the comments, over thirty of them, agreed with Jo. Some highlights, if that's the word:
... I enjoy the celebrations of others, and I don't ask that they change theirs because I don't agree.

... It's a season of love and caring and giving. Why does it have to turn into political bull-

I am too old and stubborn to change. It has always been Christmas and will always be Christmas. To call it anything else is just silly.

... commercialism and political correctness. I would never dream of asking someone to change their Kwanzaa or Chanukah. Even the thought of such a thing would have people up in arms, and yet Christmas is fair game.
And so on. The lack of comprehension boggled me. But maybe the lack of comprehension was mine. I do know that I've read enough responses to the "War on Christmas" accusations, and talked to enough people about the issue, to know that my understanding the rationale for saying "Happy Holidays" is not unique to me. Anyway, here is my take on the matter:
I'm sorry, Jo, but it seems to me that you have completely misunderstood what has been going on. So have most of the other commenters. That could just mean that I've misunderstood what is going on, but I don't think so in this case.

Or maybe you're just talking about Canada. Down here in the US, Christmas is still Christmas. Christians still celebrate Christmas. If you go to the most "politically correct" (and it saddens me to hear you use that despicable Newspeak term) liberal Episcopalian church, it will be celebrating Christmas on December 25, not "the holidays." The Episcopalian Church nearest my apartment, which caters to a liberal university congregational pool, even has had signs up outside insisting that it's Jesus' birthday, dammit, not Santa's!

What is at stake is manners. I am not offended when someone says "Merry Christmas" to me, though I'm an atheist. I know very well that I'm in a minority, and I take the thought behind the wish. I even observe Christmas, to some extent, as a cultural holiday. I buy gifts for my nearest and dearest, I take advantage of what everyone else is doing to send messages to friends I haven't kept in touch with as well as I should (usually e-mail these days, I'm too cheap and lazy to buy and mail cards). I sleep late on December 25, make myself cream of tomato soup, read a Jane Austen novel -- that's what you're supposed to do on that day, isn't it?

To other people, however, unless I know that they are Christians, I wish "Happy Holidays." They may not be Christians, after all. There are a lot of Jews in this college town; some observe Hanukkah, others don't. Some African-Americans observe Kwanzaa. Maybe some neopagans observe the Solstice, I don't know. It would not be an atrocity, but it would be rude to assume that they are all Christians. Since a number of holidays cluster together at this time of year, why not recognize them all and say "Happy Holidays"? It doesn't mean, as susie wrote, changing your own celebration because someone disagrees with it: you can still celebrate as you please. There's something familiar in that careful misunderstanding.

is quite rude, it seems to me, is to throw a hissyfit because someone wished you "Happy Holidays" out of generosity and a wish not to offend, but still with goodwill. If I can recognize the goodwill, however misdirected, behind a "Merry Christmas", then the rest of you folks can recognize the goodwill and the reasoning behind "Happy Holidays." The season and the 25th of December do not belong to you.

Why not be polite to people who aren't Christians and for whom December 25 is a different holiday or just another day? On the basis of Jo's post, I must consider the possibility that far from goodwill, behind a "Merry Christmas" may lurk a wish to deny my very existence as a non-Christian -- no matter what a person thinks or believes or celebrates, they are going to be included in your Christian country willy-nilly. Sort of like the Christians who tell non-Christians they like that their values are really Christian deep down, and someday they'll realize it and come to Jesus. I tell such people that, funny, I think their values are really atheistic, and someday they'll realize it and embrace atheism. Odd ... they don't usually see the kindness and goodwill that I harbor toward them when I say that.
Last month, when I got into a little ruckus over religion on Facebook, one of my Facebook friends from high school demanded irately why, if I didn't like religion, I didn't work on Christmas? Well, aside from the fact that my workplace is closed on Christmas, why should I reject a day off from work because I happen not to be a Christian? It would probably run afoul of anti-discrimination laws, in fact, to force non-believers to work on a federal holiday. Whether we believe or not, we get Christmas off if anyone else does. (The pious tend to forget that when a holiday becomes a government-recognized holiday, it becomes a secular holiday. If you don't want us infidels to get a day off on your holiday, keep the State out of it.)

I wonder if people like my friend were to get a job in another, non-Christian country, they would insist on working on (say) Buddha's birthday, or on Lunar New Year, because those are pagan holidays, and they're Christians! Or if they would insist on working that particular country's day of independence because they're Americans, dammit, and only July 4th is Independence Day! No stinkin' Canada Day or Guy Fawkes Day or Cinco de Mayo for them! Somehow I doubt it. I expect they'd demand not only that their employer give them July 4th off, but celebrate the American Independence Day in Timbuktu or Tokyo, because July 4th is American Freedom Day, and nobody's going to make them change their celebration!

To repeat: I don't mind, let alone object, when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas. But I found, as "Happy Holidays" caught on, that I appreciated it. According to Wikipedia, the phrase only caught on in the past decade, though I could swear I remember it from my childhood; but the equally inclusive and non-sectarian "Season's Greetings" goes back to the 19th century. (On the other hand, this guy says that Irving Berlin gets the credit / blame for "Happy Holidays", and he seems to be right, though that 1942 song was originally titled "Happy Holiday." And we all know that December 25 is really Mithra's birthday.