‘Merry Christmas’ versus ‘Happy Holidays’

Every year around this time, the “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays” debate comes up. People fight about “keeping the Christ in Christmas” and respecting everyone’s beliefs. I will not argue that one or both of these perspectives are wrong; I will argue that the debate itself is flawed.
The “Merry Christmas” camp presupposes that religion is meant to be dominant in celebrations at this time of year, which makes any religious celebration automatically superior to a secular one. Insisting on the use of the phrase “Merry Christmas” makes Christian celebrations superior to any other religious celebrations. It is first-world martyrdom to complain that the widespread use of “Happy Holidays” undermines any specific religion.
Those who insist people say “Happy Holidays” to include everyone still give religion an enormous amount of power. This argument says, “I can’t hear the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ without feeling excluded.” Under the guise of inclusiveness, this argument still polarizes the debate into “Christians” and “everyone else.”
Both of these arguments put the religious origins of this season in a separate, special category, making religious debate more important than everything else that comes with any of the holidays that take place in December.
I think the “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays” debate is pointless because Christmas has become something entirely different.
Regardless of the religious origins of this holiday (Christian, pagan, martian, whatever), the religious and secular elements of our culture have decided to uphold certain traditions associated with Christmas. Religion does not hold a monopoly on these traditions.
I think the phrase “Merry Christmas” has become an idiom. I don’t see this as undermining or insulting to the Christian faith. This is simply a linguistic evolution.
Saying “Merry Christmas” does not always literally mean “enjoy your celebration of the birth of Jesus.” It can just be the conversational equivalent of, “Have a nice day.” In March, we say “Happy St. Patrick’s Day” to people who are not Irish or who do not celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but we say it to be friendly. I think the same concept applies to “Merry Christmas.”
I know St. Patrick’s Day is not given the same amount of religious reverence as Christmas, but that is the point. If you’re not religious, one holiday does not necessarily need to be given more weight than any other. A celebration is a celebration.
I am an atheist who celebrates Christmas. Why? It is part of my cultural heritage. When I set out to write this article, I wanted to talk about what Christmas means to an atheist, but I found it difficult to explain.
It is counter productive to try to defend an atheist Christmas in feel-good terms as being “about family” or “about giving.”
Though Christmas certainly can be about family and giving (it is for me), by focusing on the common ground between a secular Christmas and a religious Christmas, religion is treated as a gold standard to which a secular Christmas must attempt to measure up. An atheist Christmas doesn’t have to be “everything the Christians do, except a celebration of Jesus.”
Christianity does not have exclusive rights to why and how Christmas should be celebrated. A secular celebration, or even a complete lack of celebration has equal value to religious activity.
Dec. 25 is a day that belongs to everyone, even people who spend it cleaning their house or catching up on “Orange is the New Black.”
So, as we continue careening through finals week inexorably toward Dec. 25, I would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas.
BY MAGGIE OLSON
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