Merry Christmas? Happy Holidays? What are we Really Saying with our Wintertime Greetings?

     “Have a great day, and happy holidays!” my cashier calls to me as I walk out of the store. It’s December third, officially the “holiday season,” and the store is decked out in Christmas lights while Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas is You” plays in the background. I smile and wish the cashier a nice rest of her day, pushing away the familiar annoyance I feel every year as a Jewish person in December. 

     In the past several years, the replacement of the word “Christmas” with “holiday” has become increasingly common in our greetings, TV specials, and celebrations. In a way, this is a good thing, because it shows that our culture is moving towards trying to be inclusive and accepting of people from all religious backgrounds. However, our efforts to be inclusive tend to stop at changing “Christmas” to “holiday.” In reality, this change does nothing to actually include people from religious minorities, and it is not as inclusive as so many people think.

     As a religious Jew who has always been in the very small minority of people who don’t celebrate Christian* holidays, when people say “happy holidays” to me, it leaves me feeling more annoyed than if they had just said “merry Christmas.” The reason for this is that oftentimes, the words “happy holidays” are unaccompanied by any actual efforts to be inclusive, and therefore seem empty. Most people who say “holiday” instead of “Christmas” are trying to do the right thing. The problem is, they probably haven’t asked anybody who doesn’t celebrate Christmas how to do this, so most of their well-meaning efforts are misguided. As a result, most people tend to focus more on changing the names to seem inclusive than putting in the effort to change their practices and actually include everybody.

     In addition to the change of wording being ineffective at including everybody, saying “holiday” instead of “Christmas” isn’t even accurate, and still emphasizes Christmas as the cultural default. Despite the word “holiday” not technically being about any one religion, the so-called “holiday season” is generally referring to the month of December, AKA the month leading up to Christmas. There are no major Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, or Jewish holidays in December, so what holidays are really being included in this “holiday season?” When we label what is clearly the Christmas season as a “holiday season,” not only are we using an inaccurate label, but it also identifies Christmas as the holiday instead of actually acknowledging other religions’ holidays.

     Also, Hanukkah, the celebration generally offered as the “other holiday” is extremely minor in Judaism, and really only known because it falls close to Christmas. Hanukkah also ended this year on December sixth, so calling the break centered around Christmas “holiday break” doesn’t even include it. 

     Still, there are ways our community should adjust to be more inclusive of religious minorities. I want to be clear, this article is not me telling you to keep saying “merry Christmas” and not make any efforts to change how you think about holidays. My goal is to encourage our community to not just change the words we use, but to change our practices as a whole. Calling an annual activity a “holiday celebration” instead of a Christmas one but continuing to only play Christmas-themed games and hang Christmas decorations like wreaths does not actually include people who don’t celebrate Christmas. A better way of making this type of celebration inclusive is to change the games and decorations so they’re unrelated to any religious holiday. For example, we could decorate with snowflakes and play games based around sledding in a wintertime celebration. Otherwise, call it what it is, and be honest about the ways our dominantly Christian culture affects which holidays we honor. 

     Another great way to be inclusive of religious minorities is to find out when major holidays are in non-Christian religions, and then wish everyone a happy holiday on those days. This might sound daunting, but trust me, it’s really easy. You can easily google “major holidays in [insert religion here],” and then put one or two of these days into your phone’s calendar to give you an alert on those days. You can also look up “appropriate greetings for [insert holiday here],” and put those results into your calendar reminders as well, but just saying “happy [holiday]” is great too. Keep in mind that in some religions, the dates of holidays change every year in our calendar, so make sure you’re checking the right year.

     Just taking the five minutes to do this google search and then texting people you know to wish them a happy holiday will make a world of difference. For me, the first time a teacher ever wished me a happy holiday for one of my holidays was last year, when I was in tenth grade. As we hung up from a Teams call on the first night of Hanukkah, my teacher said “happy Hanukkah to anyone who celebrates!” Just this simple statement made me start crying after I hit the end-call button, because it was my first time in ten years at Oyster River where one of my teachers acknowledged my religion as normal. Small acknowledgements like this will show people from religious minorities that you see and value them, something that generally has not been shown to us before. 

     Keep saying “merry Christmas,” because that’s the holiday you celebrate, and it’s great to take joy in the holidays you observe! However, make sure people who celebrate other religions get to take joy in their holidays, too. As you’re leaving a store or saying goodbye to your classmates as you head off to break this week, think about the words you choose, and what messages they’re sending. 

     Merry Christmas, Oyster River!

*For the purposes of this article, the term “Christian” refers to someone who observes holidays that are rooted in Christianity such as Christmas and Easter as the only religiously-based holidays they celebrate, regardless of whether they are celebrated in a secular way or if the person identifies as an atheist or agnostic. The term “religious minority” is used about people who observe a religion outside of this definition of Christianity, such as Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and more. These definitions do vary depending on context and are certainly controversial, but just in this article, that’s what they mean.