Growing up as a Jewish kid, I regularly took offense to strangers wishing me a “merry Christmas” during the holiday season. I remember exiting those interactions with a scowl, ranting incessantly to my parents about how “they don’t know that I celebrate Christmas” and “there are other holidays during this time of year.”
I was right: “Merry Christmas” is far from the most inclusive greeting, and no one should assume which holiday somebody is celebrating (or even that they’re celebrating one). However, I frequently allowed this frustration to blind me from the reality of these interactions — someone was simply offering positive wishes for the season in the only way they knew how. As I matured, I realized my anger toward those wishing me a “merry Christmas” was only hurting myself. No one maliciously said these words, nor hoped to dim my little Jewish spirit as I assumed they did. I contributed to the divisive nature of the world in the time of year when unity is the most necessary, all because people said a nice thing to me, which just happened to be the wrong nice thing.
Others in the world believe we should only greet people with “merry Christmas” — that “happy holidays” is Christianity erasure, and that those of the opposing view have declared some kind of “War on Christmas” by using a more inclusive greeting. I, however, only choose to recognize the Grinch’s “War on Christmas”; the one in the United States does not exist. Secularists are not perpetrating any “War on Christmas” by including religious minorities when saying “happy holidays,” and those who choose to say “merry Christmas” as opposed to “happy holidays” are not imposing their religious beliefs, only offering well-wishes in the way they’ve been taught. If you choose to internally (or externally) punish someone for greeting you with positive wishes for the season, you may just be looking for a reason to get angry, and you’re likely hurting yourself in the process.
According to Bill O’Reilly in 2004, who coined the term “War on Christmas,” the use of “happy holidays” by large retailers to substitute “merry Christmas” foreshadowed secularist America’s plot to destroy religion and push a progressive political agenda. Though religion has not since been destroyed, involvement with religion has indisputably decreased as time has progressed. The results of a Gallup poll indicate that the percentage of the American population identifying with Christianity has dropped by 14% between 2004 and 2019, and the percentage of the population not identifying with any religion has increased by 12% in the same timespan.
However, if the goal of reducing religious involvement was to push the progressive agenda, it certainly has not been achieved. O’Reilly cited “gay marriage, partial birth abortion, euthanasia, (and) legalized drugs” as examples of progressive ideals in an areligious America. The United States has since legalized same-sex marriage on a national level, but many states continue to restrict abortion and most states list physician-assisted suicide as illegal, while marijuana is still illegal recreationally in many states.
Furthermore, another Gallup poll indicates that around 93% of Americans claimed to celebrate Christmas in 2019, which is only approximately 3% lower than the percentage reported in 2004. Given that only 67% of people identified with Christianity in 2019, these results indicate that around 26% of those who celebrate Christmas aren’t even Christian. The “destruction” of religion following the replacement of “merry Christmas” with “happy holidays” has not instituted the progressive agenda as O’Reilly believed it would, and it has not been associated with a significant reduction in the percentage of those who celebrate Christmas. My understanding is that the secularization of the U.S. has almost nothing to do with the celebration of Christmas, so the alleged “War on Christmas” simply does not exist.
However, those who say “happy holidays” aren’t completely off the hook, specifically those who, like I once did, take offense to being wished a “merry Christmas.” The 26% deviation between those who identify as Christian and those who celebrate Christmas indicates two things. First, a stranger who says “merry Christmas” to ten people will likely be successful with nine, given that 93% of people report that they celebrate Christmas, and only one will have the potential to take offense to the statement. However, if the stranger says “happy holidays” to ten people, they include all ten with the neutral statement, but multiple of the nine may believe in the “War on Christmas” and take offense to the statement. The stranger is more likely to offend fewer people by saying “merry Christmas.”
Second, if 26% of those who celebrate Christmas do not identify as Christian, it can be argued that the celebration of Christmas does not have to be a religious institution at all. In 2017, a Pew Research Center poll indicated that, though 90% of Americans celebrated Christmas, less than half viewed it as a religious holiday. If someone wishes you a “merry Christmas,” it is more likely than not that they simply hope you eat lots of chocolate and have a good day on December 25.
Looking at numbers and analyzing behavior statistically, though, only illuminates the intuitive idea that, regardless of how someone does it, wishing others a happy holiday season is a good thing. Plenty of things in this country spur anger and debate, and for good reason, but the prospect of people taking a nice thing and turning it into something ugly for such an inconsequential reason is sad. If you want to express anger toward someone for saying something racist, homophobic or in any way bigoted, I support you, and I stand by you. But if you want to express anger toward someone for saying something nice, something that does not have lasting negative consequences and something that they say with only benevolent intentions, I do not support you. Whether it’s “merry Christmas” or “happy holidays,” they say the same thing: I hope you have a happy, healthy holiday season.
Ilana Mermelstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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