The Thanksgiving turkey is barely cooled and eaten by the time the holiday season bursts out in full force. An incongruously named day, Black Friday, is ironically the day designated to kick off the season of Light although many people have decorations up long before the Thanksgiving weekend and retailers decorate weeks before that. Personally I refuse to decorate my home or even listen to carols until we have given that day of gratitude its due but less and less people seem to be doing that. However in the past few years there seems to be a raging battle for the very soul of the season. Many have eschewed the greeting “Merry Christmas” for the more inclusive “Happy Holidays” and suddenly the battle lines have been drawn.
As a Psychology major, I find it fascinating how strongly human behavior has been impacted by the choice of one’s greeting in December. I, myself, thinking I was being polite to an elderly woman in the grocery store the other day when I greeted her with Happy Holidays, was corrected by her admonishing me for not saying Merry Christmas. Some even defiantly refuse to say one greeting or the other as if they were not greetings of the season but insults instead. But the truth of the matter is that Christmas is not the only holiday to be celebrated in December and if I choose to be respectful of friends who do not celebrate that particular day then I choose to greet them differently.
I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and Christmas was always a wondrous time for me. The lights and the decorations, the candles and the music and of course Christmas morning with its magical promise of desired gifts (and some surprises of the not so desired ones) kept me going all month long. Midnight Mass was to me one of the most spiritual of events and it was always because of the music. I sang in the church choir throughout my childhood loving the sound of our childish, angelic voices reaching to the every heavens. The cold winter weather as we left the church would often leave the sky crystal clear and the thousands of stars above made me fully believe that we were blessed. For me, Christmas was always merry.
As I ventured out into the greater world, however, I came to appreciate and enjoy other celebrations in December. Hanukkah, another celebration of light, is the December observance for my Jewish friends. Depending on the Arabic calendar, Ramadan sometimes lands in December for Muslim friends. The Winter Solstice marks a celebration for friends who observe earth religions. Kwanzaa is yet another celebration. I can’t be sure why they all seem to land in December except that the end of a year always brings reflection and celebration for making it through yet another one.
I love Christmas and I always will. Although not a devout Catholic anymore, I still carry some traditions of my childhood and have created others for my family. But if Merry Christmas is the only greeting I will say during December then I will have excluded some of my dearest friends and fondest celebrations. I am not sure when saying Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays became such a bad thing but in these past few years it has felt like an existential battle of epic proportions. And is this animosity over holiday greetings really in the spirit of the season?
There is no doubt the world has changed. When I was young and living in my insular little community where everyone was either Catholic or Protestant, Christmas meant one thing to us and I never questioned anything different. But the world is so much smaller today and we can all be aware of and learn about any religious traditions we might want to at the click of a keystroke. I don’t believe I am negating one person’s belief by greeting another in a different way and I certainly don’t need to be corrected by my elders! The great spiritual texts of the world’s largest and oldest religions all espouse the gifts we should be willing to give and receive: love, compassion, caring, sharing and understanding. It is so ironic that while humans fight over translations and interpretations of ancient texts that have survived thousands of years and many incarnations, the basic messages and teachings of these texts all seem to say the same thing. I find it strange that we continue to fight over who says it best.
If we truly reflect on the gifts of the season then the words we speak should not be louder then what our hearts want to express. We just ended the month of gratitude but seem to forget all of that so quickly in the rush of the holidays. Instead we argue over differences with the certainty that our way is the only way. Why can we not just wish someone good cheer? Why must we get bothered by simple greetings spoken with goodwill? Every celebration of this month espouses the same sentiments: peace, joy and harmony among men and women. As we end another year those ideals will continue to be my wish upon a star.
Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Ramadan Mubarak. Happy Holidays. Blessed Be.