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Interfaith Voices: Why I feel ambivalent about the greeting 'Happy Holidays'

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During the aftermath of the unusually heavy and long-lasting snow that fell in Corvallis the day after Christmas, I had time while cocooning to reflect on the phrase “Happy Holidays” and why I feel so ambivalent about it.

This phrase was first used in 1863 in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It reappeared in 1930s and 1940s advertising. “Season’s Greetings,” a similarly neutral term, was used on White House Christmas correspondence during the Eisenhower administration. President George W. Bush wished his Christmas card recipients a happy “holiday season.”

More recently, “Happy Holidays” has been encouraged as a way to recognize that there are other faiths besides Christianity in this country. The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah most often falls in December, occasionally starting in November. Rohatsu, or Bodhi Day, is a major Buddhist holiday in December. Kwanzaa, a celebration of African American culture, starts in December and concludes on Jan. 1. Wiccans observe the winter solstice.

Pancha Ganapati is a Hindu holiday celebrated for five days in December. The Muslim holiday of Ramadan moves around the calendar and so sometimes falls in December.

As Americans became increasingly aware of the non-Christians in our midst and diversity was touted as a value, it was thought that saying “Merry Christmas” could make non-Christians feel excluded. “Happy Holidays” usage grew exponentially, even eclipsing the use of “Merry Christmas” in public venues such as stores and your doctor’s office.

While some have welcomed this change, others have pushed back against it as excluding Christians. Some have called it a war on Christmas. I would argue that it not only excludes Christians, but those who celebrate other December holidays. In the name of respecting diversity, we have become less diverse. For me, “Happy Holidays” is so generic as to feel meaningless. (I realize that others’ mileage may vary.)

I love to wish people of different faiths a greeting appropriate to their holiday, whether it is Merry Christmas, Joyous Kwanzaa or Ramadan Mubarak; Happy Solstice, Happy Pancha Ganapati or Blessed Bodhi Day. When my physical therapist wished me a Happy Hanukkah, I felt seen and appreciated for who I am, and I want others to feel that way as well.

Yet it is not possible to know the faith (or lack thereof) of everyone with whom we come into contact, and so especially in public venues where we are not well known, “Happy Holidays” or some variation thereof is the only practical way to convey good wishes for holy days, whatever they may be.

You and I will continue to receive “Happy Holidays” cards from our real estate agent and dentist, and from friends who do mass mailings of December greeting cards to friends and families whose faiths vary. I will continue to feel ambivalent. But if I could have two wishes for the December holiday season — and for every time of year — they would be:

(1) Do not be offended if someone wishes you “Merry Christmas” and you are not a Christian; it is meant positively. Do not correct someone who has only the best intentions. Conversely, do not feel offended if someone wishes you “Happy Holidays”; it is almost certainly meant well and is not a declaration of war on Christianity.

(2) When possible, recognize diversity with the greeting that speaks to that person’s deeply held beliefs. If this feels like you are adopting that belief when yours is different, you can preface it by saying “I wish you a _______.”

Wait, I have a third wish: May we all be blessed to turn holy days into occasions for respect, love and peace, not war — on anyone’s holiday.

Rachel Peck is a transplant from the other Washington (D.C). She lived in Salem from 1958 to 1961, and happy memories from that time brought her back to Oregon. She persuaded her husband to check out this part of the world, and they moved to Corvallis in 2005. She likes to read, hike and try her hand at baking bread, with mixed results.


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