What it really means to live in a pluralistic society

Three years ago, I wrote about my feelings on the phrase “Happy Holidays” – spoiler, I don’t like it.

No matter how much I, personally, as a Jewish woman, point out to Christians I know that saying this phrase instead of “Merry Christmas” is an empty gesture and, frankly, revealing of tremendous ignorance, most people I know continue to do it. For the record, this year, Hanukkah is November 28th to December 6th meaning that if you wish someone Happy Holidays at any point after the first week in December in order to cover your bases and acknowledge a plurality of traditions, all you are doing is revealing that you have no idea that Hanukkah already happened. Kwanzaa, the only other December holiday most American Christians can think of, happens after Christmas, at which point Christians have already moved on to “Happy New Year”. With these clear factual reasons why saying “Happy Holidays” makes no sense, I have to assume that most people who insist on saying it do so because they don’t want to acknowledge that they live in a Christian-dominant society.

Ok, stay with me here, because I’m making a nuanced point that is not at all what you are going to hear on Fox News. There is a difference between living in a Christian society and a Christian-dominant society. A Christian society would be one where Christian liturgy and scripture directly inform the laws and customs that are enforced both socially and administratively in a country. It would mean something along the lines of having the Ten Commandments instead of the Bill of Rights. A Christian-dominant society is one where, as a result of the majority of people in power, both historically and in the present, being raised in Christian communities, aspects of our “history, law, and culture” have been fundamentally influenced by aspects of Christianity as a social structure.

The difference between these is intent vs. reality, and, as a result, the pervasiveness of the influence of Christianity. To have a Christian society, there both had to be intent to build Christian laws into the structure of the society and thus consistent influence of Christianity at many levels. A Christian-dominant society such as ours has received a tremendous but inconsistently-applied degree of influence from Christianity, and so while there are many formal and informal aspects of American society that reflect a particular interpretation of Christianity, this influence is not present in all aspects, nor is it essential. Because there are and have always been non-Christian communities within the US that can, to varying degrees, ignore the influence of Christianity. You might say, then, that America is a pluralistic society. But partially because we do not acknowledge the reality of Christian dominance in this country, we don’t have structural support for non-Christians that would actually allow true pluralism.

Let’s take a look at what I mean by structural support, and we can start with something really clear: federal holidays. Most religious/culturally-entrenched holidays require a significant amount of time devoted to preparing for the event or observing it with undivided attention. Does the US acknowledge any of these and thus provide structural support to practice any particular religion? Yes. Up until 2021, it was exactly one: Christmas. In 2021, we also added Juneteenth, which is not a religious holiday but it is certainly born of a particular cultural group within the US. [And let’s not forget that even some secular federal holidays are deeply offensive to some people, and rightly so.] At the state or city level, American municipalities chose to provide structural support for cultural populations that have a large presence in that area. But, importantly, the kind of support that these local municipalities provide is much less than instituting a federal holiday. For instance, New York City has the same list of official holidays as the US government. But the NYC public school system has a somewhat larger list of recognized holidays that require schools to be closed, which include major Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur, Lunar New Year, and Eid al-fitr. Noteably, almost no local governments recognize Hindu holidays, such as Diwali. Even in districts where school is closed on these holidays, there is no general business closure on those same days, meaning that while the kids might be entitled to the day off, the parents or caregivers have to request that time off from their vacation days. Now, let’s also not forget that just because a day is a federal holiday, it doesn’t mean that everyone gets a vacation. But there is at least some structural support for Christmas that doesn’t exist for other religious or cultural holidays. Even if there were such support for other holidays, we run into an issue of practicality – how many work days will be left if we schedule in every holiday? Should we even be thinking about the observance of holidays in terms of paid labor? [oooh, now I’m getting very Communist]

The way we frame this issue of recognizing holidays is kind of boxed in by the way we interpret the First Amendment. For a refresher, because it’s always good to be reminded of the exact language of the Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.


The first clause says that the federal government can’t make laws that directly impact a religious group, either to their benefit or detriment. We refer to this in shorthand as “freedom of religion”. The way we have interpreted this in practice is that the government has to operate in a secular manner and remove discussions of religion from official spaces. In theory, this should put everyone on equal footing – if we can’t talk about religion in the government, then no religion gets preferential treatment. Except that the vast majority of people in the government with the power to make laws and policy decisions belong to the same general religion (Christianity, particularly Protestant sects), and, just as importantly, minority religious groups, including those who are atheist, agnostic, or unaffiliated, are proportionally underrepresented (assuming representation should be proportional to population, which maybe it shouldn’t). The only minority religious group that is overrepresented is Judaism, which, well, see my analysis on the concept of a Judeo-Christian culture. The result of this is that when we talk about religion being involved in the government, it’s with respect to how much Christianity should or shouldn’t be invoked explicitly, because its implicit presence is already the elephant in the room. In contrast, even though religious texts such as the Qur’an are allowed to be used for swearing-in (and, I’ll note, there is always the option to “affirm” i.e. swear on your own conscience without a religious text), there is no cultural expectation that it is remotely appropriate to invoke a non-Judeo-Christian religious tradition in our government.

In new Congress, nearly nine-in-ten describe themselves as Christian

So, I would argue that the problem is not that we don’t acknowledge minority religious groups (including people who are unaffiliated or avowed atheists), it’s that we don’t acknowledge the fact that the majority IS the majority. Everyone might be getting a slice of the pie, but we can’t say it’s equal if one slice is 60% of the pie.

Is there a precedent for such a society? Yes there is, and it’s Islamic law.

As a medieval historian, when I talk about pluralistic societies of the past, I am almost always talking about Islamic societies. The big example of this, in terms of population and time, is al-Andalus, or Islamic Spain, but my area of expertise is the smaller and shorter-lived Muslim and Norman Sicily. What made these societies work in their pluralism was the fact that Islamic law has a built-in set of regulations for non-Muslims living in Muslim-ruled lands. Essentially, these peoples have a binding contract with the Muslim government, which requires the government to acknowledge them as citizens and take responsibility for protecting them and their interests, while the people themselves are required to pay a specific tax. This tax, known as the jizya has been controversial in the past and for historians themselves, as it can sound like a penalty for not being Muslim. However, the interpretation of this tax, especially later during the Ottoman Empire, is that this fixed poll tax is the only tax these people can be required to pay. The Ottomans further formalized the recognition of minority groups through the millet system (from the Arabic mila, referring to a religious community). Under the millet system, minority religious groups with their own legal traditions were given authority to practice and enforce those traditions within their own communities. So a dispute between two Jews was heard in a Jewish, rather than Ottoman, court. Now, neither of these systems was flawless. There was plenty of room for abuse. For instance, even though the Christian Normans used the Muslim system in Sicily to recognize Muslims within the kingdom, they also seized mosques and converted them into churches; legally, this group was protected, but they could still be squeezed out through the destruction of their physical resources. Similarly, and more severely, the genocide of Christian Turks under the late Ottoman Empire certainly was not stopped or prevented by legal pluralism. But when these systems were respected, they did provide the structure for genuine pluralism. And that required the acknowledgement of difference.

So, if we come back to “Happy Holidays”, I appreciate the sentiment behind it. It is that acknowledgement of difference. It’s nice to walk around a public space and feel that all of the people around me will not shun me for not participating in their traditions. Believe me, I’ve been in that space. But the issue there isn’t what you say, it’s what you mean. You can wish me Merry Christmas and mean “this is a happy time for me and I want to share that happiness with you”. Or you can mean “this is a time that we have in common, and I want to signal that this is something we both do.” What happens when you mean the latter is that when I say “oh, I don’t celebrate Christmas”, you suddenly no longer have that same intent to connect with me. Let me put it like this: if you’re Christian, have you ever been wished “Happy New Year” in February or “Eid Mubark”? Sometimes when people say those things you feel the urge to correct them, to tell them you’re not part of that tradition. And sometimes you don’t, because you feel welcomed into their celebration.

The important thing isn’t the words that are used, it’s how you say them. A personal anecdote: when I was in high school, I dated a guy who was from a devoutly Catholic family. His parents set up a creche in their living room the day after Thanksgiving that took up half the floor space. For the two Christmases we were together, he told me that he wanted to celebrate with me a “nondenominational gift giving day”, and how much he wanted me to be around with his family during the holiday. He was telling me how much love he felt around Christmas and how he wanted to bring me into that, even though he knew I had no interest in the religious aspect that was clearly very important to his parents. You might say “well my family isn’t very religious, it’s really a secular holiday”. But what I want you, if you are Christian, to recognize, is that, as I wrote three years ago, to everyone else, it’s just another day in December. It doesn’t matter how religious you think you are, it’s still a Christian holiday. And if you don’t recognize that, you can’t share the parts of it you like with the people who aren’t Christian. You don’t have to be Jewish to eat latkes, but then it starts to get a little weird when you find yourself reciting a prayer to “our God, king of the world” while lighting a ritualistic fire. By the same token, I’ve been to dozens of Catholic masses at this point, both to support my Catholic friends and family at major life events and to participate as a choir singer, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to take Communion. There’s a way to share your tradition without forcing religious observance on someone else, and that starts with recognizing the extent to which your tradition is not everyone’s.

In 2021, by all means, wish me whatever you like. But acknowledge what you mean by that wish. Don’t just tolerate me in your space, interrupting your tradition. Welcome me in, because we both belong here.

Happy Hanukkah!