Monday, December 25, 2006

The Real Reason for "Happy Holidays"

Thank you, Bill O'Reilly. For the last two years, the normally pleasant holiday season has been polluted by heated arguments over a purported "War on Christmas". The allegation, for those of you living under rocks, is that political correctness is forcing Christmas out of the public sphere and "Merry Christmas" is being replaced by the generic "Happy Holidays".

Never mind that New Year comes just a week after Christmas and "Happy Holidays" can easily be understood to mean "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year". Christians who see themselves as victims of the "Happy Holidays" phenomenon insist that its purpose is to avoid offending folks who don't celebrate Christmas by avoiding explicit mention of it.

But is that really what's going on? I grew up in a secular Jewish family and was never offended by people wishing me a merry Christmas. Geoffrey Pullum of Language Log points out that neither are most people who don't observe the holiday. But there is more to saying "Happy Holidays" than just avoiding reference to a particular one.

Think back to the brouhaha over the removal of Christmas trees from Seattle-Tacoma Airport. (BTW, folks, a Christmas tree is not a Christian symbol. It's an adopted pagan custom, like Easter eggs.) That unfortunate decision was triggered by an Orthodox Jewish rabbi's request that the airport display a menorah along with its Christmas trees. The rabbi never asked for the removal of the trees. He simply wanted another holiday included.

The key word here is "included". Yes, very few non-Christians will be offended at hearing, "Merry Christmas" or seeing a Christmas tree. But it is nice to hear a greeting that you can interpret as including your holiday, whether that's Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali or Eid al-Adha. In the same vein, I have no objection to public holiday displays, as long as they include symbols of many of the religions practiced in a community and secular holidays like New Year and Winter Solstice.

With this shift in viewpoint, I hope we can call a truce in the Christmas Wars. Now, can someone please explain "Season's Greetings" to me?


jbruno said...

I'm with you 100%! I'm not a very religious guy, but I'm sure not offended at someone wishing me well, no matter the salutation.

I was referred to you through A Blog Around the Clock. We're looking for hosts and contributors at Oekologie, the 'sphere's first ecology and env sci carnival. Please drop by and let us know if you'd like to participate. I would like the first year (if possible) of Oekologie to be all hosted by ecology blogs.


Anonymous said...


Re: Happy Holidays, se our little Christmas site with a very different perspective: Christmas and Yuletide

After all, most of what we do and celebrate is really pre-Christian. Let's rejoice in that.

Best to your folks,

Parallel Divergence said...

I forgot to point you to this great little Christmas Story:

"How Google Earth Killed Santa..."

Johan A. Stenberg said...

I'm really glad that most holidays are still religious.
There's a scaring pseudo-religious tendency among biologists to idolize St. Darwin and other persons that we consider 'holy'. That can never be the right thing to do! So let's keep and celebrate all our Christian and Jewish holidays and leave naturalism where it belongs: at work!

Merry Christmas! :)

Jane Shevtsov said...

Hi Jonah,

Thanks for reading! I enjoy your blog.

Most American holidays aren't religious. Let's make a list of holidays, by category:

Christmas or Hanukkah
Easter or Passover
Jewish High Holidays

Formerly religious:
Valentine's Day
St. Patrick's Day

New Year?

Fourth of July
Presidents' Day
Martin Luther King Day
Memorial Day
Veterans' Day
Labor Day
Mother's Day
Father's Day

The secular and mostly secular holidays win out by my count, although you might include Good Friday, etc.

I'm not big on "St. Darwin" (as much as I admire him) and, unlike some in the science blogosphere, I'm not out to eliminate religion. However, I have no desire to "leave naturalism at work"! I'm a Jackson Browne fan, and a couple of quotes from "Alive in the World" convey my view rather well:

I want to live in the world,
Not inside my head...

With its beauty and its cruelty,
With its heartbreak and its joy,
With it constantly giving birth to life and to forces that destroy
And the infinite power of change
Alive in the world