Dispatches from Abroad: Home for the “Holidays”

Less than two weeks ago, I was sweating on the equator, where there’s no snow and the Christmas decor of Santas, elves, and reindeer seems vaguely out of place. Now I’m back in Massachusetts, where there’s a little of the white stuff (although most melted out in yesterday’s driving rain) and re-learning my way around the American landscape I’ve been away from since late July.

Apparently, one of the big issues facing the good citizens of our republic in this transitional era is whether one should say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”. Fivethirtyeight.com even did a post on this vexing question. Living as I do in the northeast, I’ve usually gone along with my local majority, which shares exuberant Christmas displays with “Happy Holidays.” But the ground appears to be shifting a bit here in Massachusetts.

Yesterday morning—Christmas Eve—I dropped off a pile of letters and bills at my local post office, and on my way out wished the postmistress “Happy Holidays.” One of my neighbors (we’re all neighbors in a town of 1000) verbally hauled me up short: “That’s ‘Merry Christmas’ — which we’re allowed to say again!”

As we walked out to our cars, he continued that he’s proud to celebrate Christmas, to which I responded that I’m proud not to celebrate it. We nonetheless parted on friendly terms, wishing each other a Merry Christmas. But it did get me thinking more about why I prefer to wish someone Happy Holidays this time of year.

It’s certainly a celebratory time of year. The days are getting longer again, we’re on vacation, and the economy gets its annual shot in the arm. This year, with Hannukah and Christmas Eve occurring concurrently, even more festive meals and exchanges of presents are occurring. So why not encourage happiness and merriness all around?

I’m happy to extend good wishes to my fellow Homo sapiens, and I’m not insulted when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas (and I’m shortly on my way to a Christmas party). As far as I can tell, and contra Corey Lewandowski, Bill O’Reilly, and others at Fox News, there’s never been a “War on Christmas” and it’s been commonplace and permissible to wish anyone a Merry Christmas here in the USA for as long as there’s been a USA. But why should I presume that the person I am talking to shares my religion, and why should someone else presume that I share theirs?

The answer can certainly, as and  do on fivethirtyeight.com, be cast in terms of the ongoing “culture wars” between right and left, religious and non-religious, northeast/west and Midwest/south. But that only accentuates differences and hardens points of view to the point that we don’t even see one another as individuals any more.

So maybe in this holiday time of year we can try to simply show a bit more respect for the diversity of religious practices and beliefs among the people we live with, near, and among. We can start by trying neither to give offense by presuming that everyone else is like oneself nor take offense at well-meaning good wishes.


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