One of the culture wars battles the last year or two has been retailers that go out of their way to avoid any reference to Christmas at this time of year. Perhaps because I live in one of the more vigorously traditional parts of America--where the population is overwhelmingly Protestant, Catholic, or Church of Latter Day Saints--this doesn't seem to be a big issue. I was pleased and surprised at how many sales clerks wished me "Merry Christmas" over the last few weeks--far more so than I can remember in previous years.
What drove the move towards the generic and almost meaningless, "Happy Holidays"? I suspect that it was people convinced that there was something offensive about acknowledging that Christmas is the holiday for the overwhelming majority of Americans. For a majority of Americans, Christmas is not just a "winter holiday" but a holy day, when we commemorate the birth of our Lord and Savior. I wish that more of those who hold Christmas special for that reason operated more consistently as though they actually believed it, but people are strange and not very consistent.
For another very large group of Americans, even if they are not particularly religious, Christmas is what this season is all about, because these are people who grew up in Christian homes. Even if they no longer believe--or are too busy sowing their wild oats to believe right now--this season is a time of warm memories. To this bunch, "Happy Holidays" is slightly absurd.
I grew up on the West Side of Los Angeles--an area that had a very large Jewish population. I can remember going into my allergy specialist a couple days before Christmas one year. I think he was Jewish, and I can recall the look on his face as he searched his memory of discussions we had had over the years before he reached out his hand to shake mine and say, "Merry Christmas." I think he was trying to figure out if I was Jewish or not, and finally concluded that I probably was not.
Professor Eugene Volokh over at Volokh Conspiracy had a very thoughtful piece about what is offensive:
I don't celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, but so what? If you wish me a Merry Christmas, is it really reasonable for me to interpret this as a wish that I have a deep relationship with Jesus on this day? I rather doubt it -- "Merry [anything]" isn't much of a call for serious religious action or introspection. Nor is it an assumption that I'm religiously Christian. Everyone, certainly including religious Christians, knows that tens of millions of Americans, including those raised nominally Christian, don't celebrate it as a religious holiday.A lot of the "we don't want to offend anyone" foolishness that provokes "Happy Holidays" is, I think, from people who are not offended by "Merry Christmas," but spend a lot of time wringing their hands about the possibility that there are Muslims, Jews, atheists, and other religious minorities who will be offended--much like when some bureaucrat in one of the British cities decreed no stuffed animals that depict pigs would be allowed in governmental offices, to avoid offending Muslims. Yes, I'm sure that al-Qaeda would be offended by Miss Piggie, but I'm skeptical that even most religious Muslims would find anything offensive about this cartoonish depiction of a pig. A lot of multiculturalism is this same hand-wringing concern that someone, somewhere might be upset.
So if you tell me "Merry Christmas," good for you. If you tell me "Happy Holidays," I confess I'll get a bit annoyed because of its generic air, but I'll just assume that you're trying to play it safe -- often a very good strategy in social relations. Plus why be churlish about someone wishing you a happy anything? If you tell me "Happy Hanukkah," I'll start racking my brains about when Hanukkah actually is this year; I never have any idea. If you tell me "Happy Diwali," I'll assume that this is a good thing in your life, and I'll appreciate the good wishes. (If neither you nor I are Hindu, then I might wonder what you mean by that.) If you tell me "Happy New Year," my favorite greeting, I'll be extra pleased, but that's just a matter of taste.
If I knew that someone was not a Christian and religious, I would not say, "Merry Christmas" to them, because I know that it might be taken as offensive. If I meet someone wearing a yarmulke, or one of the several types of Muslim clothing that clearly identify someone has religious, I'm not going to say, "Merry Christmas." But this is--still--a Christian nation. If I don't have a pretty strong indicator that a person that I meet is going to find the sentiment offensive, I see no reason to engage in any form of euphemism. Nor is there any good reason for retailers to do likewise. Doing so offends the vast majority of Americans who, if they don't treat Christmas as the day when we commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, at least see Christmas as at least a time for reflection and good will towards others.