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The Woes of Holiday Words

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It is now November, and as I sit on my roommate’s bed typing out this next piece for college credit, my mind drifts to the upcoming holidays. Whether it be the weather, the feeling that “it’s just that time of year,” or the fact that I just bull-shitted an article about buying “the perfect gift” for “those special people in your life” for a campus magazine, the holidays are now on my mind. So much so that I am anxiously awaiting those obnoxious, cutesy, singsong advertisements that make you want to vomit holiday spirit.

Obviously, the holidays I am speaking of are Thanksgiving and Christmas, and while it has remained “politically correct” to wish someone “Happy Thanksgiving,” it seems that wishing someone a “Merry Christmas” could be offensive. Give me a break.

I remember in high school when Christmas Break suddenly became Winter Break (hell, even the Halloween parties in elementary school became Fall Festivals) and our office faculty decorated our school with holiday wreaths and holiday trees. I wondered then, as I do now, if anyone would have actually been offended if that sparse pine tree, adorned with cheap ornaments the color of our school colors, was openly called what it actually is: a Christmas tree. Would a student or teacher who does not celebrate Christmas actually throw a fit about a foot-wide holiday wreath, exclaiming how insulted they are? Would a student or teacher protest against a five-foot tree that stands meekly in the school’s main hallway? I highly doubt it.

It was a constant joke made among my fellow classmates and myself: the fact that everything had become politically correct to the point that it was ridiculous. In my experience, having several non-Christian friends back then, no one was offended by the title of Christmas Break, and when it was changed to “Winter Break,” everyone still called it the former. I suppose the school, the government, and whoever else could be responsible for this change of name had the best intentions, but it didn’t seem necessary.

Another part of this must-be-politically-correct game came to play at my job. Back in high school, I was your average cashier at the neighborhood grocery store (Tom Thumb to be exact) and I distinctly remember feeling pressured to say “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings” to customers, rather than the standard “Merry Christmas.”

I lived in a predominantly white community, but the number of Asian, African-Americans, Middle Eastern, and Indian customers was not small. Oftentimes, if I didn’t offer them my seasonal “parting comment” (whether it was because I forgot, didn’t care, or couldn’t decide what phrase to use), they stared at me expectantly until I satisfied their holiday-wishing need.

On one occasion, I was checking and bagging a customer’s rather large order — complete with a frozen ham, plenty of side dishes, and six bottles of wine — while pretending to listen to whatever the customer was rambling on about. When finished, I promptly told him his total and struggled to find enough sincerity to ask if he “would like any help out.” As he took the receipt and began to walk away, I offered, “Have a good day.” He stopped, gave me a patient aren’t-you-forgetting-something smile, and waited. I stared right back with a blank expression until it clicked in my mind what I was supposed to say.

“Oh, right. Happy Holidays,” I said with a flat tone.

“You have a Merry Christmas, Sarah,” he said back with a wink and a smile that was much too friendly. Disgusting. If I had wanted to get hit on by some guy at the grocery store while silently being criticized for not offering a Merry Christmas, I wouldn’t have felt the urge to gouge my eyes out and vomit. As it was, I just wanted to finish my eight-hour shift in one piece.

I always found it odd when customers seemed more offended when I didn’t wish them a “Merry Christmas” versus when I did, especially when everything at school seemed centered on neutrality. To add to the holiday nightmare at work, our store director made several employees dress up as Santa Claus or an elf, prancing around the store trying to get people to buy gift cards. If you didn’t want a gift card but needed to know where cumin was, Santa could help you in that area, too – but don’t worry because they won’t wish you a “Merry Christmas,” lest you be offended.

I understand the purpose of using the politically correct phrases, and granted there are probably many people who are insulted when wished a “Merry Christmas,” so maybe it’s better safe than sorry, but I mean, really – chill out. I somehow think America would live if Winter Break became Christmas Break again.

It is like this in other countries? In the Middle East, do the Christians and Jews resort to a neutral “Happy Holidays?” Is the Christian afraid they’ll wish the Jewish citizen a Merry Christmas while the Jew might wish the Christian a Happy Hanukkah? I have no idea, and while the Middle East is often stricken with religious conflict, I can’t help but feel it would be silly for one to get mad at the other for a trivial “Happy Hanukkah” wishing. Likewise, what is it like for the Muslims during this time?

Since being politically correct is about remaining neutral and appealing to everyone, I cannot leave out the Atheists. I also know a few Atheists and they never pitched a fit when told “Merry Christmas.” It’s not as if saying the word “Christmas,” which just so happens to have the word “Christ” in it, is shoving Christianity in an Atheist’s face, forcing them to convert.

There are even some issues about the abbreviation, “Xmas.” Granted, this abbreviation has a religious background. The Greek letter “X” is “Chi” which is the first part of “Christ” and the “-mas” part comes from the Latin-derived, Old English word for “mass.” Some people think the “X” is not religious but “crossing out Christ,” while others argue the “X” is a cross on its side. This, however, has no factual backing and is just one more way religious freaks and non-believers alike get pleasure by throwing bitch fits about trivial abbreviations. Sometimes I think Americans just like to overact about the stupidest things because we get bored.

I am a Christian; in fact I am Catholic. While I can’t speak for everyone, I can honestly say I would not be offended if someone wished me a Happy Hanukkah or Kwanza. To me, saying “Merry Christmas” is simply that. Thanks to the technology industry, the toy industry, the clothes industry, and any other industry that spits out products for people to purchase for other people, Christmas seems to be more about presents rather than religion.

Throwing out a “Merry Christmas” to the cashier at the store shouldn’t insult anyone, and vice versa. They’re just words, two words. I think we will survive if we are told to have a good holiday that isn’t one we celebrate.

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About sarahgray

  • Lisa Solod Warren

    I think you don’t need to worry about it, Sarah.

  • Sarah,

    Out where I live in Israel, Christmas is a non-event – no Chrismas carols, no Christmas sales, no Christmas trees. In fact, Christmas is barely celebrated in December – Orthodox Christians, who far outnumber Catholics and Protestants here, celebrate Chrisrman in January or so. The big deal here is Hanukkah, with its sufganyót (jelly donuts of a sort). And, to absolutely honest with you, I love it! I no longer have to live with someone else’s holiday being shoved down my throat.

    But, on the other hand, I do not feel the need to be politically correct, and I feel for you that you get stuck with stupid things like having to decide how to wish someone a Merry Christmas. In the States, it did not bother me if someone wished me a Merry Christmas.

    But the constant droning on of Christmas songs and sales and trees and demands that I should care about someone else’s holiday “season” did piss me off some. Putting powder on a pig’s nose does not take away its stink, and “holiday season” is even more offensive than “Christmas season” because of its fundamental dishonesty. Blowing up Hanukkah to be more than it is – a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar – also is fundamentally dishonest.

    So, Merry Christmas to you, Sarah – a bit early.

    Blessings from the mountains of Liberated Samaria

  • Oh, by the way, for you, Sarah.

    This is the voice of modern Israel; not a Christmas carol, not exactly háva negíla; but we still do not lose hope. We cannot afford to.

  • “Political correctness” cuts both ways on this issue, as with so many others. Partisans of “Merry Christmas” grow more and more militant each year.

    I’ve personally witnessed a person respond to a perfectly friendly and innocent “Happy Holidays!” by saying “NO! Merry Christmas.” in a tone that was not friendly at all. Now that’s not really a very merry thing to do, wouldn’t you think?

    Ah, but thinking is in short supply on this issue. We could simply accept from each other whatever friendly season’s greetings our neighbors feel most comfortable giving us. If someone tells me “Happy Hanukkah!” or “Merry Solstice!” or even, God forbid, “Happy Holidays!” I could take it as a kind gesture and respond with the same spirit, even though I’m not a Jew, or a neo-pagan, or a godless communist myself.

    Instead we’ve allowed self-obsessed pundits to create a social climate where many a “Merry Christmas” now carries insulting undertones the phrase never had before. Now it often feels much like being slapped with a glove. Not really painful, but there is an unmistakable edge to the voice, a glint in the eye of the speaker. They’re daring someone to take offense. They’re barely able to conceal the hope that someone will take offense and give them yet another flimsy excuse to imagine themselves a persecuted minority.

    Coming from the religious majority that is still by far the most powerful cultural and political force in the United States, there’s nothing at all merry about that particular delusion.

    So, what’s the solution to this mess? There’s no easy answer. Like the rest of the culture war nonsense, it’s designed to be an irrationally emotional issue that will keep selling crappy books year in and year out.

    Still, it couldn’t hurt for everyone feeling upset about this issue to just calm down and try to be genuinely merry, with actual good will, and peace on Earth, etc., etc., etc.

    Thank you thank you thank you thank you.

    I will be linking it and giving you credit on my own blog; you said it much more eloquently than I ever could.