I’m full of wrong opinions, so here’s one: I hate the phrase “happy holidays”.
Yeah, I know, I’m a liberal Jew, I should be championing this along with friendsgiving, BCE, and liberal use of the term verklempt. But like all of those, I think it’s a hugely problematic and superficial solution to a much deeper bias.
Every year, I start to see variations on this meme pop up. Happy holidays, because there’s more than just Christmas. I appreciate the sentiment, I really do – why exclude people unnecessarily, especially when the season you’re celebrating is about love and togetherness? But that’s exactly the problem – for everyone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, December 25th is just Tuesday and that week is just winter vacation (or a totally normal workweek before New Year’s). To them, to me, there’s no reason to say anything. So by creating a new, non-denominational phrase, you’re not being inclusive, you’re just expanding the reach of Christian culture in an even more monolithic way. Now I can’t even remove myself by saying “actually I don’t celebrate Christmas” because now it’s “the winter holiday season”.
I mentioned in my post on American Jewishness how hard it is to explain Hanukkah to people, because Christmas has turned Hanukkah into a real holiday when it was just a week of fried food before. There was a version of political correctness in the 90s that sought to find the equivalence in non-dominant cultures: this is how we celebrate birthdays, that’s how they celebrate birthdays. It was a good impulse, an effort to educate an obliviously white culture and make Americans of diverse backgrounds seem less foreign. But the framing holds these cultures at arm’s length – it’s not how “we” do things, but we should appreciate it anyway. Happy Holidays is the same impulse with the opposite effect: let’s make everyone part of our experience by putting their traditions in terms of ours. These both come from an ignorance – like Hanukkah, most of the December holidays have no similarity to and don’t overlap with Christmas, but Christians know about them because of their proximity on the calendar.
Real cultural diversity is recognizing the special days that fall at seemingly odd times of the year. I’ve been really pleased to see the growing awareness of Ramadan over the last few years, for instance. But at the same time I have the feeling that this was a fear response: “hmm, what are all the Muslims doing? Are they planning to blow the rest of us up? Oh, it’s a holiday? Good for them.” Meanwhile, most people outside of New York still have no idea when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are, which are actually major holidays in the Jewish calendar.
Being aware of other cultures only insomuch as they overlap with the dominant culture is a kind of forced assimilation. Not only is your lens, your entire way of seeing the world, a Christian filter, but you impose that on other people by making space for them only during the times that it occurs to you that you’re excluding them. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having your own tradition. But having your tradition, then claiming that you’re being inclusive by only acknowledging other cultures in the context of your own, is frankly just a selfish thing to do. It’s like if you have a friend who never initiates contact or never asks how you are – maybe they’re good at replying, or maybe they’ll ask about you once you’ve already asked about them, but that effort just never feels like enough. You want people to meet you where you are once in a while, to see things from your perspective, or at least recognize when they don’t. If you have to experience that on a cultural level, it’s even more frustrating.
So I think Happy Holidays is out. It’s Merry Christmas watered down. It’s like you took Merry Christmas and covered it with a sheet – we know what’s under there, we can still see the outline. So what would be better? Well, if you don’t know the person and the context is completely neutral, say Merry Christmas. If you want to include people in your tradition out of a sense of community and sharing, that’s great. Tell them you want them to enjoy the holiday, even if it’s just another day for them, the same way you might tell someone to have a good evening. Don’t try to guess their religion and give them a tailored well-wishing, not only because you’d be making a strangely personal assumption based on a superficial assessment (which is one definition of racism), but also because chances are you’re still going to be wrong about something. You’re probably going to be wrong about what they celebrate (which can be nothing, by the way), and even if you’re right you’re probably going to be wrong about when that holiday is (for the millionth time, Hannukah is in early December). Or you could say nothing, which would be an equally good bet. And if you’re only saying Merry Christmas out of habit and not because you actually want them to enjoy the next month, then this is a better option anyway because it’s more sincere.
Now, if you know the person, but you don’t know what their plans are, you should use this as an opportunity to ASK THEM. You don’t need to guess or impose anything on them. In fact, you can use this opportunity to learn something about another person. Because even if their answer is “I have no plans”, you can still meet that person where they are. You don’t need to invite them to your family’s dinner, because maybe they don’t feel lonely and don’t want plans. Maybe they like seeing a movie with their sibling on a day that theaters are empty in the middle of a huge movie season. You don’t know until you ask.
But you definitely should not wish a specific thing on a person whom you know and whose plans you know, if that greeting doesn’t line up with their plans. For all my reminders about Hannukah, I’m extremely non-observant. I will probably light candles one night and sing songs and make some latkes (which, for the record, are pronounced LAHT-cuz, not LAT-keys or LAHT-KAHS, and, again, this would happen about 3 weeks before Christmas). And yet, I know people who will send me Christmas cards and wish me Happy Hannukah, knowing that I’m not really going to do anything for the holiday. This is exactly the problem. I don’t need an equivalent tradition. Let me share your tradition if you want to share it with me, but otherwise don’t worry about making me feel left out. Having plans, having a life, doesn’t by its very existence exclude other people. But sending someone a Christmas card and writing in it the equivalent of “I WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT I KNOW YOU DON’T CELEBRATE THIS HOLIDAY” does necessarily hold that person at arm’s length. Either don’t send them the card, or write the same thing in there you would for everyone else. It’s trying to make special arrangements and then flubbing them that’s actually offensive, because it suggests that you can’t be bothered to really do something selfless.
And that’s what all of this boils down to: selfishness. If you’re going to extend a greeting, make it sincere. Show you care about someone by bringing them into your traditions or asking to be part of theirs. But if you can’t be sincere, just don’t fake it. Meet people where they are, and be honest about where you are.