Political correctness dictates that we use a standardized “Happy Holidays” in lieu of a denominational winter greeting.

Let me begin by acknowledging that the controversy over this habit was primarily invented by the righteous cable TV talking heads. It doesn’t matter nearly as much as any of them would have you think. It’s almost a non-issue. Almost. I’ll also acknowledge that, nearly two weeks after Christmas, this could not be less timely. Regardless, I’m inclined to weigh in.

In high school, I worked part time at a local pack-and-ship store. One late-December night, I finished ringing up one harried middle-aged couple, stuck my hand out with their receipt and said, “Merry Christmas.”

Her face turned sour. He gave her what could only be a “don’t get into it” look. But she did, indeed, get into it.

“We’re Jewish,” she said, cocking her head and putting a hand on her hip, pausing there to make sure it sunk in with me.

He leaned in to snatch the receipt from me, adding: “For Christ’s sake, you know, you can avoid offending anyone by just keeping it to ‘Happy Holidays.’ “

That’s right, for Christ’s sake, don’t wish us a Merry Christmas.

As the son of a Jewish man and a Catholic woman, raised in the church but comfortable with the cultural sensibilities of both sides, I reasoned I was safe. Hanukkah had been over for weeks, and these folks were shipping gifts. Merry Christmas. Instead, I got a tongue-lashing from a Jew who invoked Jesus to teach me a lesson about religious deference.

He only used “for Christ’s sake” for emphasis. It’s a common phrase that seldom carries its literal connotation or weight.

But that’s no different from my saying “Merry Christmas” — I most certainly didn’t mean “May you recognize the glory of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and devote the entirety of your being to commemorating His birth and His death for you, the sorry human sinner whose existence on this earth is entirely owed to His sacrifice and whose fate in the afterlife lies in the balance of His judgement.”

No. What I really meant was, “I hope you get to relax, spend time with family and enjoy some good food.” I really did. And I’m sure that’s what happened.

As I shared the story with others, I learned that this response was relatively common, though perhaps not to the same extreme. There are people who are actually offended by well-wishing, if it’s not the precise sentiment that suits how they worship.

Store clerks shouldn’t have to worry that their extension of warmth might put someone off, and cab drivers shouldn’t have to offer the transparently diplomatic “Happy Holidays” to ensure that they get tipped.

I’m not hung up on it the way Bill O’Reilly, for instance, is. His disdain for “Happy Holidays” stems from a bizarre persecution complex and a longing for some fictitious, idealized “way things used to be in this country.” As O’Reilly or Sean Hannity would tell you, this is a Christian country, and they’re not about to let the PC Police take that away by bastardizing “Merry Christmas.”

Instead, I just don’t think Christmas — Bible Christmas — has much to do with it.

Christmas is a secular holiday in the United States. American children, in their most impressionable years, submit to the canon of Santa Claus before they know or understand who Jesus Christ is, or the concept of a Christian God. It’s the omniscient Santa Claus who “knows when you are sleeping … knows when you’re awake … knows when you’ve been bad or good.” It’s Santa with his gifts, not Jesus with his promise of eternal salvation, who guides Christian childhood morality. Americans spend more and more each year on Christmas, while fewer identify as Christians and even fewer regularly attend services.

To say “Merry Christmas” isn’t to assume that everyone shares the same worldview, and it’s not an underhanded assertion of the superiority of that worldview. It would be nice if all involved parties could take “Merry Christmas” for what it is: a nice thing to say to another person.

Matt Aaronson was the Daily’s managing editor in 2010. He can be reached at maarons@umich.edu.

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