Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays?

A friend recently posted on Facebook an interesting status update that  mentioned some friends who she’d heard complaining were upset when people use the greeting Happy Holidays now instead of just wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. The complaining friend said she felt this detracted from the meaning of Christmas. My friend mentioned she felt “privileged to live in a country that can include more than one holiday in December, and that she wanted to show that feeling of pride by including everyone’s holidays in her warm wishes for a cold winter.”

It elicited quite a lot of commentary on Facebook and made me ponder this issue as well. Having grown up Jewish in rural Vermont where we were one of very few Jewish families, I definitely have some thoughts on this issue. When I was growing up and people would wish me a Merry Christmas it immediately made me feel like an outsider. I don’t remember ever saying much at the time except perhaps just replying “Merry Christmas” as well, but it did immediately remind me that I was different. That said, I have always loved this time of year and find it quite a beautiful season. I love the lights, the holiday food, the gaiety in the air and find that people do somehow seem happier than usual. Now that I am a mother, we’ve chosen to add some family holiday customs into our life and enjoy several events around the city to visit the Christmas lights throughout the season. I don’t feel like this detracts from our enjoyment of the holiday of Hanukkah but allows me to participate in activities that our family cherishes doing together each year. I do remember once as a young mother, when a store clerk asked my daughter what Santa was going to bring her, my daughter loudly replied, “I don’t believe in Santa because I am Jewish.”

Let’s be frank though about why Hanukkah, a relatively minor Jewish holiday in our tradition, has been propelled into a holiday acknowledged as equivalent to Christmas. It’s been the commercial marketing that has done this, that has produced products and cards and other things that have lifted Hanukkah to seem to be equivalent to Christmas. But let’s also acknowledge that this same commercialism has happened with multiple holidays. Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas and even the 4th of July all have ungodly levels of material goods sold for weeks before the actual holiday.

If people feel that by wishing someone a “Happy Holiday” rather than a Merry Christmas they are diluting their own tradition it isn’t that phrase that has done this it is that we have allowed ourselves to be changed by the commercialism that has permeated these holidays. Our more significant Jewish high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that occur in the fall have not been influenced by this commercialism so they remain truly religious holidays rather than commercial opportunities.

I do appreciate my friends sentiment though that as a country we never were only one religion it’s just that over the past few decades people are more aware of this and now many of us actually acknowledge these differences. I think this makes us stronger and more united as we learn about each others cultures, foods, and practices and by doing so we can break down the stereotypes. We are all individuals and perhaps an acknowledgment of these differences is what helps us realize how truly privileged we are in this country.

Wishing everyone,  a very happy holiday season filled with love, light, peace and understanding.