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?