As I was leaving the grocery store yesterday, a man told me to have a merry Winter Solstice. He wasn't an employee, mind you, but a fellow shopper, an emaciated fellow with long hair who was pushing his cart towards the organic food section. We were both navigating the complex traffic patterns of the Christmas Eve rush--I was on the way out and he was on the way in--and when there was a break in which we could pass each other, I had nodded with a cordial smile and wished him a merry Christmas. That was when he said, "Merry Winter Solstice!" Later, I found myself in yet another store, Target, and when I wished the check-out lady a merry Christmas, she replied with "Happy Holidays!" I noticed all the cashiers were saying this, as though it were company policy not to get specific about which holiday to celebrate.
|If you give cards like this to people, you are probably a terrible human being|
When I finally got home, I made the mistake of going on Facebook, where there was a veritable war going on about how best to wish each other good tidings at this time of year. The first two posts I saw were a giant picture of Jesus dying on the cross with the words "I PROUDLY SAY 'MERRY CHRISTMAS,' BECAUSE YOU CAN'T HAVE CHRISTMAS WITHOUT CHRIST!" stenciled over it in bold red and green lettering and a shared jpeg informing us that "THE WORD HOLIDAY COMES FROM 'HOLY DAY,' SO WHAT'S SO SECULAR ABOUT WISHING 'HAPPY HOLIDAYS' AGAIN?" A bit further down, I found somebody complaining that they were Jewish but nobody was wishing them a happy Hannukah. What it comes down to it, people take their winter well-wishing awfully seriously, and it seems that offering a friendly "Merry Christmas" is a potential minefield. (And God help you if you put "X-mas" on your Christmas cards.)
I will admit, when that hippy wished me a good Winter Solstice, my first thought--as my eyes involuntarily rolled back--was that the guy was a total douche, and when the cashiers at Target were forced to say "Happy Holidays," a part of me was thinking, "What the heck is wrong with saying 'Merry Christmas?'" There are even some--I'm sure you can find them if you turn on Fox News, for example--who think the politically-correct "Happy Holidays" is proof that our culture is waging a war on Christmas, which additionally is proof that Christians are being persecuted in America or something. I find that especially hard to swallow where I live--Bethlehem, Pennsylvania--where a huge lighted star hovers over the city all year and the post office proudly acknowledges that the town's nickname is "Christmas City." People start putting up their lights and trees around here before Halloween, for crying out loud.
|Thank you, Internets, for this lovely visual metaphor|
Let's be clear about a few things, though. First of all, though Christmas is ostensibly a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Christ, the vast majority of typical Christmas traditions--the tree, the presents, the timing, the lights--are all based on Pagan, Roman, and other non-Christian celebrations. The gift-giving, for example, probably comes from the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, even though Christians like to believe it has to do with the three wise men delivering presents to the baby Jesus. In America, many traditions such as the presents, diverse ornaments, and cards have become part of consumer culture, reinforced through advertising and popular entertainment, having practically nothing anymore to do with the birth of Christ. And then there's Santa Claus, an amalgamation of several different historical figures and icons--only some of which are religious--who has become so divorced from Christianity that it is hard to figure out where he could possibly fit into the nativity. I'm not sure the North Pole or reindeer are even mentioned in the Bible.
Secondly, this is America, dammit, where we are proud to be idiosyncratic and are supposed to celebrate our diversity. Christmas has become such a cultural phenomenon that you don't have to be religious at all to observe it. If you want to celebrate the holiday by wearing purple lederhosen, drinking last night's bath water, eating salmon with peanut butter, and chanting at the moon, you have the right--if not the responsibility--to do it. It seems absurd for me to be offended if you want to wish me a "Super Loony Mass!" This is a melting pot (or a salad bowl, if you want to get nitpicky about your metaphor), where various cultures and traditions from around the world come together and are free to do what they will. If you'd rather celebrate Hannukah than Christmas, go for it. If you'd rather not celebrate Christmas at all, prefering to treat it like any other day, nothing is stopping you. In fact, if you want to get all fundamentalist and celebrate Christmas in a purely Christian way with no secular or Pagan interference (you'd probably be doing it on January 6, but I'm not trying to tell you how to interpret doctrine), then do it.
|It's beginning to look a lot like Loony Mass (and yes, I know that's technically not lederhosen, but I don't tell you how to celebrate your Loony Mass, do I?)|
People like to be merry, and everybody likes a good holiday. Therefore, if somebody wishes you a happy holiday--even if it's a holiday you don't observe--you wish them a happy holiday right back, and you do it with a goddamn smile. The last thing you should do is take offense, because that's doing the exact opposite of what the friendly person wants. Be polite, be cheerful, and be good, and it doesn't matter what words you use. I find the politically-correct "Happy Holidays" to be totally acceptable, because it's used as a way to be as inoffensive as humanly possible, even though, by all accounts, you can't please everybody.
But don't wish people a "Merry Winter Solstice." That just makes you a douche.
-e. magill 12/25/2012