“Merry Christmas!” It was the standard December greeting in the New Jersey town where I was raised. New Jersey is diverse as a whole, but it is made up of a patchwork of small towns, many of which have historically been ethnic enclaves. I took for granted that dried pasta had its own aisle at the grocery store, and when I moved to the Boston area as a young adult, I was shocked to have to hunt down spaghetti in the “ethnic” section. My classmates in the New Jersey public schools were mostly Catholic and mainline Protestant. Perhaps three-quarters were observant, and the rest were like me, Santa-and-Easter-Bunny secular Christians. There was one Jewish student in my grade, and during grade school each December her teacher invited her mother to our classroom to give a fun lesson about Chanukah and hand out dreidels and chocolate coins.
The first time I heard someone suggest that it was not polite to say “Merry Christmas” indiscriminately because not everyone celebrates Christmas, it was a revelation. I must have been in middle school. It was the mid-1980s, and the concept of “multiculturalism” had just hit the mainstream.
I can remember how I felt. I was a bit embarrassed and ashamed that I had made people feel excluded and disrespected. I felt defensive, too, though — I had not been intending to give offense; I had been trying to share happy feelings and goodwill. I was also sad. The phrase “Merry Christmas” held a myriad of positive connotations for me: joy, hope, music, miracles, light in the darkness, and most of all special time with family. The proffered substitute, “Happy Holidays,” felt cold and alien in my mouth.
I stuck with it, though, and over time my feelings changed. It helped that my college community was much more diverse than my hometown. At home, there was something awkward about switching to “Happy Holidays” when the speaker and the listener were almost certainly both planning to celebrate Christmas. It was a little bit like the experience of living in one of the countries such as China or Germany where there is a shared national language, but many people feel more at ease in their local dialect. How strange to speak the formal, “public,” version of the language when everyone in the conversation most likely feels more comfortable using warm, homey local lingo!
In contrast, at college, many of my friends, teachers, and classmates were not Christian. Saying “Happy Holidays” was much more than a gesture of theoretical intention to include people; it actually was the more appropriate thing to say as often as not. The more my friendships crossed religious lines, the more obvious it was that to express mutual feelings of goodwill and shared hope for peace and light in the season of darkness, we needed language that expressed that shared vision. It grew more and more natural to say “Happy Holidays” in December.
The history that I like to research is the history of cultural ideas and experiences that are deep and ingrained in us, and so taken for granted that it can be hard to imagine them changing. People often ask me to specify a date when common ideas about the topics I usually study — menstruation, pregnancy, miscarriage, parenting — changed. “At least pinpoint the decade,” they urge. But I find myself explaining that the changes I have documented occurred over a number of generations, and usually only partially for any one person. Radical conversions are not the norm. Cultural change usually requires the slow, gradual accretion of new habits.
Over the past 30 or so winters, I have wished thousands of friends, neighbors, and colleagues “Happy Holidays.” With each earnest expression of goodwill and wish for shared peace and joy, the phrase took on a bit more depth and resonance for me. I feel something much richer than I did three decades ago. I continue to treasure sharing “Merry Christmas” greetings within my family and my church community. But now, rather than feeling sorry that I can’t wish more people a Merry Christmas, I feel doubly blessed, with a broader community unlimited by religious affiliation with whom I can express affinity and community every time I say “Happy Holidays.”
This season, President Trump has been wielding the “Merry Christmas” greeting as a cudgel with which to demean and exclude non-Christians and by symbolic extension anyone who challenges his narrow vision of who belongs in America. And he seems to believe that anyone who wishes him “Happy Holidays” has an equally divisive and curmudgeonly intention. He is trying to turn our very expressions of hope and solidarity into weapons and urging us to use them against one another.
Let’s reclaim our holiday greetings. We are in desperate need of the hope, joy, and peace they express. I hope that we can turn to each other, across religious and political divides, and offer our hope for peace on earth and in our hearts. We need to put aside the paranoia and suspicion that Trump breeds, and earnestly mean “I hope you have a happy holiday,” and “season’s greetings,” and “peace be with you.”
I hope those of us who have committed to “Happy Holidays” can offer the greeting with love in our hearts, and patience and goodwill for the people for whom that greeting is awkward and alien, as it was for me thirty years ago. The only way we will win Trump’s supporters over to a more inclusive view of the world is to demonstrate how it works. In this season of hope and light in the darkness, we must try.