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Commentary: What's so bad about 'Happy Holidays'?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 22, 2008 - The holiday season always reminds me how territorial we can be. The "war on Christmas" argument has come back, and we are made to feel "damned if we do, damned if we don't."

There's nothing inherently wrong with saying "Merry Christmas," but there's also nothing wrong with being sensitive enough to consider whether or not the phrase fits the recipient.

If you know someone is Christian, it's easy. But if you know that someone follows another faith tradition, why would you be intent on wishing him or her a Merry Christmas? If you are in a friendship circle where you each wish each other a Happy Divali, Eid Mubarek, etc., perhaps it wouldn't be too out of place. But my hunch is that many of us Christians use Merry Christmas as a greeting out of laziness. It becomes the "How are you doing? Fine" exchange of the season.

I think retailers have caught onto this reality. If the clientele you are trying to reach is diverse, why use a phrase that narrows your market? You would not want to narrow the pool of potential customers. I suspect conservative Christians might argue that the omission of the phrase is offensive, and the retailer could potentially lose Christians' business.

This hunch certainly seems to be the case for a group of women in Mahoning Valley, Ohio, who became frustrated that clerks in stores were replacing "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays." They raised funds to erect 10 billboards this season to express their views.

However, I would caution us from making grand assumptions. Christians are not monolithic in their thinking; therefore, it would be a false assumption that every Christian is offended when not greeted with "Merry Christmas."

The "War on Christmas" has fueled this false assumption. Bill O'Reilly was the first person who came to mind when I thought about this controversy. But upon further reading , I learned that the concept had another author. It seems that a conservative writer, Peter Brimelow, birthed the idea years before O'Reilly brought it to mainstream media. His work comes from the perspective that immigrants and other cultures are responsible for the unraveling of the "ethnic core" of America.

Our country was founded by Christian men and infused with Christian ideas. Yet from the beginning, we espoused separation of church and state and struggled with how to recognize the diversity present in our nations' inhabitants. Even if Christians have had the upper hand, this position is in no way a guarantee. And furthermore, wouldn't we want to model respect and inclusiveness rather than narrowness given that we might not always be the dominant group in power?

So, thinking more broadly, how would our society respond if Muslims demanded we greet them with Eid Mubarek or Jews threw a media fit to be wished a blessed Yom Kippur? My hunch is that we would think, "Who do they think they are?" Whether we would admit it or say it out loud is another question.

You could argue that there's no way we would know these important events, because they are not national holidays. That would be true, but then you have to ask the important question: "Why it is that only Christian holidays are national holidays?"

In my opinion, it's not about what phrases are plastered on TV or expressed by clerks, but more important, how aware we are of what different members in our society hold dear.

I am reminded of the time when our faculty scheduled a meeting on Yom Kippur. No one caught the mistake until a Jewish faculty member spoke up. I am certain that it would have been caught sooner had the meeting been scheduled on Christmas. No one was purposeful about the scheduling, but it was certainly a clear indication of the fact that we were generally unaware of our Jewish colleagues.

What I think is really going on is that we Christians are having some difficulty sharing. We've been the main show, gotten national recognition, and now feel as if something is being taken away from us.

We're like the big sibling feeling displaced by the younger sibling. If we take that analogy a step further, even though the big brother feels as if things are being taken away, the family is really just making room for the other child. This shift might involve recognizing the needs of the younger child and generally making room for the family to grow. Similarly, the USA is working to accommodate the religious groups that are represented in our society: growing pains.

"Merry Christmas" being replaced by a more generic term merely represents our awareness and sensitivity to the diversity of our nation. It does not mean that we hate Christians, Christmas or Christ. It also does not mean that the term should be outlawed. The older sibling often feels displaced, throws tantrums and swears the parents are playing favorites. Let's get beyond our sibling rivalry and accept that our family has, simply, grown.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. 

Kira Hudson Banks

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