Merry Christmas!

A Christian illiterate suggests two reasons the Christmas greeting is not offensive.

Is it my imagination, or are more people using the phrase this year? I’m not sure, but there have been plenty of Facebook debates on whether it’s appropriate, and I’ve enjoyed participating in all of them. It beats arguing politics. No, wait. I love arguing politics. Maybe the Merry Christmas debate is just an extension. But it does seem to come up every Christmas Season, ‘er, I mean Holiday Season, ‘er, I mean Winter Celebration.

Before I share my thoughts, I need to confess how unqualified I am to have an opinion on Christian holidays. Oh, I was raised in the Christian tradition, in the sense that I went to Church on Sundays, and like every kid in America, hated it. Weekends are for putting on jeans and digging holes in the ground looking for worms, right? I can’t remember why we were always looking for worms, but I’m sure there was a reason. Who wants to get all cleaned up and dressed up and sit still for an hour listening to stuff you don’t understand, and pretending to be singing hymns, and hoping no one realizes you’re just mouthing the words, which make no sense anyway. “E-man-u-el to the high–est…” Huh? It’s gibberish to an eight-year-old.

In fact, it’s still gibberish. Maybe if I’d ever read the Bible front-to-back I’d know who this Emanuel guy was. But I rebelled in Sunday School no less than I did in the regular classroom. The more teachers tried to stuff knowledge into my head, the more I made sure it was completely closed. I would learn something when I was good and ready. And interested in the subject matter. Like, is it easier to find worms in the morning or the evening? Where was Google when I needed it?

I suspected my parents weren’t all that excited about Sunday mornings either, but they’d never admit it. Actions speak louder than words, and there must have been a reason we changed churches six times while I was growing up. We started with Methodist. And then evolved to Congregationalist. Then Presbyterian. Unitarian. Episcopalian. Lutheran. I realize now they weren’t trying out different sects, they were pastor-shopping. They chose a church based on affinity with the pastor, and the nature of the sermons. Even today, when someone asks my mom “Are you Christian,” she has a killer response: “I try to be,” she says. She loves that phrase in part because it confuses the hell out of the person asking, so to speak. But it’s an honest statement. My parents believe Christianity is a process, a journey. It’s not binary.

And while I’m venting, what’s with the Nicene Creed, that we had to recite as Lutherans, to prove our faith? Every Sunday we were forced to say: “[Jesus Christ] was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father…”

So I was supposed to have an opinion on which side of the Father, Christ was sitting on? Seriously? Even back then I was looking to debate someone, and would have loved to have stood up one day in Church and proclaimed my belief that Christ was actually sitting on the left side, not the right. Ha! How’s that, for launching a new schism in Christianity? Martin Luther would have been proud.

But here’s the most embarrassing revelation of all, the one that still makes my parents wince when I confess it. I was in college, taking a course in comparative religions when I first learned that Easter had something to do with Christianity. Really? What could it possibly have to do with Christianity?

As a child, I loved Easter. It was one of my favorite celebrations. You spend the prior day removing the innards from eggs so they’d be hollow and not start to smell, and then you’d decorate them with crayons and watercolors and sprinkled glitter. How cool is that? On Easter Day itself, you’d have these wonderful Easter Egg hunts, sometimes indoors, but the best ones were outside, and all the kids in the neighborhood participated. OMG, I can still remember the rush of excitement when you’d spot one of those little splashes of color, hiding in the grass, or under some sticks.

One year, the town of Cedar Falls had a municipal Easter Egg hunt in the park, and whoever found the most eggs would win a Real Live Rabbit. A real one, not chocolate! Well, you guessed it. I won, and I got the rabbit. In hindsight I suspect my parents were not as excited as I was, because they ended up having to clean the cage each day. But for weeks I was in…heaven.

Now here I was at the University of Denver and some professor was trying to connect Easter with Christianity? I’m not making this up; I somehow had missed the whole point of Easter as a child, and it hadn’t come up since. So it actually wasn’t about Easter Eggs and rabbits? Who knew?

Having disclosed my credentials, let’s talk about Christmas in America. Unlike with Easter, I was very aware that Christmas was connected with Christianity. The name itself is a clue. But the celebrations, decorations, etc., all involved the Baby Jesus. It was His birthday. Every child understands birthdays, so Christmas was easy to grasp. And the giving-of-gifts thing obviously echoed the gifts given to Jesus by the Wise Men. See, some of that Sunday School stuff must have stuck.

Santa Claus was a little confusing, but only from a logistical, not theological, perspective. How could that guy get down all the chimneys in the world in one night? As a child I wrestled with that question, but not too seriously. Obviously he did get down all the chimneys, because there were presents from Santa under the tree every morning. And what other explanation could there be? And did any child in America ever stop to wonder why Santa couldn’t just come in the front door, like everyone else did? No, that question never came up. Obviously, the reindeer sleigh had to land on the roof, not the driveway or lawn, and if you land on a roof, it makes sense to come in via the chimney, right?

OK, I’m running out of time and haven’t come to the main point, about the phrase Merry Christmas itself. In recent years some have suggested that saying “Merry Christmas,” to people who may not be Christians, is offensive. But it shouldn’t be, and here are the two reasons why.

First, while Christmas is an important religious festival to Christians, it’s not only that. In America, Christmas is also a legal, national holiday, by Act of Congress. It takes its place up there with other national holidays like New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Day, etc. Thus in America everyone is at least affected by Christmas, if for no other reason than as a day off work. The secular, legal-holiday nature of Christmas means that there’s something in it for everyone, including Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and even Atheists. Those folks don’t care about celebrating the birth of Jesus, but who doesn’t enjoy a day off work?

Thus when you wish someone Merry Christmas, you’re not suggesting that they, themselves, are Christians. That’s irrelevant. As a national holiday, Christmas applies to all of us.

In the same way, Fourth of July applies to all of us, even to someone who’s not a patriot, and still thinks it was a bad idea breaking away from England. Labor Day applies to everyone, even if you don’t think much of the Labor movement in America. Columbus Day applies to all of us, even those not of Italian descent, and even to those who—like me—are appalled at the genocide Columbus inflicted on the Caribe Indians. MLK-Day applies to everyone, even if you’re a racist and are still upset over the Civil Rights Act. Doesn’t matter. It’s still a national holiday. It’s still a day off.

When I wish someone “Happy Columbus Day,” I’m not suggesting either of us is OK with genocide. When I wish someone “Merry Christmas” I’m not suggesting either of us is necessarily Christian.

The second reason the phrase shouldn’t be offensive to anyone is that a pleasant greeting should never be offensive to anyone. You don’t need to analyze it more deeply. A pleasant greeting is a pleasant greeting. Period. It’s something we do in polite cultures: give pleasant greetings to each other. It’s kind of like smiling. It’s a good thing. The words don’t matter. Who cares about the words? It’s the emotion behind it that’s important. And the emotion is friendliness.

How dark must one’s soul be, to be offended by a friendly greeting? Any friendly greeting. It’s like being offended by a smile.

I’ve told this story before, but a few years ago when attending an ICA Congress in Bangkok, it happened to be Buddha Day. Walking around outside, strangers would smile and wish me “Happy Buddha Day.” Did I look Buddhist? Not so much. But that wasn’t the point. It was a special day in Thailand, everyone was in good spirits, and “Happy Buddha Day” was the pleasant greeting du jour. And I’d say it right back to them, smiling.

For business reasons I’ve spent a lot of time in Dubai, and they have a legal and religious holiday called Eid. It’s kind of like our Christmas, in that everyone is generally in a good mood, or is supposed to be. The reason they’re happy is that Eid celebrates the breaking of the fast of Ramadan. So they don’t have to starve themselves anymore. They get to eat, and so they do: the Feast of Eid. You hear the phrase “Happy Eid” a lot on that day. Dubai being such a cosmopolitan place, with most of the business people being Westerners, and many of the laborers being from India, no one assumes anyone’s religion. But we all say Happy Eid to each other.

Once, I was invited to the home of an expate from America. She was throwing an Eid party. All the guests were Westerners. No one was Muslim. And we all greeted each other with the phrase “Happy Eid!” Why? Because it’s a friendly greeting, appropriate to the holiday.

Several times I’ve been in India during their religious event called Diwali. I have no idea what it’s about, but I do know that everyone wishes me Happy Diwali during that period. None of them do so because they believe I’m Hindu. They are being friendly. And inclusive. And welcoming a foreigner into their culture.

Meanwhile, back in America, my sense is that the movement among retailers to order their employees to say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas is fading. There apparently was enough customer backlash that Walmart, Macy’s, Sears and others Christmas Controversies their policy.

Some things just aren’t broken. And friendly greetings don’t ever need to be fixed.

So, to my Facebook friends, from a guy who never even understood what Easter was, I wish you all a Merry Christmas! (And when the time is right, a Happy Buddha Day, Eid Day, and Diwali as well.)

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