The Brits have it right: forget Happy Holidays, just wish people Merry Christmas I'd rather be able to wish people in the US a Merry Christmas this week without having to worry if they'll be offended
A colleague made a curious statement when she returned to New Yorkrecently from London, "Everything was so Christmas-y there."
At first glance, it's a bizarre statement. New York and London (among other cities in both countries) are decked out for the holidays. Who hasn't heard of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree or London'sOxford Street lights and mince pies? And that's to say nothing of the famous storefront windows all aglow.
But look beyond the seasonal window treatments at Macy's and you'll quickly find a different story. In corporate America, everything is "happy holidays". Ads refer to "holiday shopping", end-of-year office soirees are "holiday parties" and kids' school concerts this time of year are "holiday concerts". You get the idea.
Even at the Guardian, when we put up our Christmas tree in the New York office, the first thing one of our interns said was, "Where's the menorah?"
It's the "politically correct" question. Evergreens and menorahs go hand in hand in most public places in the US. Some offices have gone a step further on the PC scale and simply done "winter wonderland" themed decorations. They have silver, gold and white lights aplenty, but no red and green anything. In short, snow globes are fine, Santa is not.
An annual survey that came out last week revealed just how conflicted Americans are on whether it's better to say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" this time of year. Half of America prefers one term and half the other. However, in a business or public setting, nearly two-thirds of those under 30 feel it's better to wish someone the more generic Happy Holidays. It's about trying to be polite in an increasingly diverse society.
I see the trend just by looking at the greeting cards I've received this year in the mail and how people are signing off their emails. The majority wish me something along the lines of: happy holidays, peace, warm wishes for the New Year, and my least favorite, "seasons greetings". The cards have nice images of mittens, ice skates and snow covered landscapes (not to mention photos of cute kids), but not much overtly Christmas-y. They offer me everything jolly and merry this time of year, except a Merry Christmas.
I'm not to saying that Christmas isn't prominently visible in the states. There are still plenty of Santas and pine trees for sale here, and a drive around the neighborhood, especially in parts of America outside of the major cities, and you'll see people go all out with the Christmas lights and decorations outside their homes (there's even a TV show about it). But even people who are clearly celebrating Christmas in their homes tend to be conflicted about what to say in the workplace or at school. No one wants to offend anyone or make assumptions about people's religious beliefs, especially at work.
In America, the term "Christmas" still has a strongly religious connotation to it (despite what years of Santa and the "buy buy buy" mentality have done to the spirit of holiday). That's only further reinforced by claims on Fox News and other conservative outlets that there is a "war on Christmas" and, by extension, a war on the Christian faith. Now wishing people a "Merry Christmas" almost has a political tone to it.
What's striking to anyone who has spent time in the UK is that everyone says Merry (or Happy) Christmas. I've even had Muslim friends in the UK send me cards and write Merry Christmas on my Facebook wall. The saying in Britain seems to have lost its religious meaning. People say it regardless of whether or not they celebrate Christmas, and businesses feel no remorse whatsoever at openly calling things "Christmas sales" or "Christmas parties".
Of course, I am making broad generalizations. As a British friend reminded me, the UK has been celebrating Saturnalia long before Christmas, and plenty of places such as Birmingham have generic Winterval celebrations. Christmas isn't ubiquitous.
But by and large, in two diverse societies with similar roots, Americans have opted to try to find neutral sounding holiday greetings, while Brits have chosen to make Christmas as open to everyone as possible.
Personally, I think the Brits have this one right. I'd rather be able to wish people a Merry Christmas this week without having to worry if they'll be offended. I'd also rather have people wish me Happy Hanukkah, Happy Diwali or Eid Mubarak when those holidays come around. It makes me feel more a part of their celebration. Let's call each holiday what it is instead of trying to lump Jewish, Christian and even the Kwanzaa ritual together. If we need a generic holiday, we've already got the New Year, which touches all people and cultures.
Telling someone to "enjoy your holiday" or worse, sending them "seasons greetings" are cop-outs. Instead of feeling more diverse and inclusive, it just feels like someone took a bit of sparkle out of the December festivities.