The other night I went to my friend Heather’s birthday dinner at a local sushi restaurant. She and I were a bit early so we had the opportunity to make mindless chit-chat before her other friends arrived.
Heather asked, “Do you take suggestions for posts on your blog?”
“Absolutely,” I replied.
Delighted, Heather launched into her idea for a post on holiday greetings. She works at a local organic store and has trouble knowing how to greet people during the “holiday season.” Heather noted how offensive it is to assume people are Christian by wishing them a “Merry Christmas,” so she opts for the more politically sensitive, “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays.” She believes people are insensitive to assume people are the same faith as them. I understand her point, but it didn’t take long for me to have a different position on this topic, and here it is.
People have too much time on their hands when they choose to be offended by a well-wishing comment. The emphasis is on the word choose. I believe that in most circumstances, we choose how we react and feel. Or at least, we choose how much weight we give it in our lives–the longevity of its significance within our existence. What are you really frustrated with? Because it’s probably not that person or their stereotypically mindless utterance of a holiday greeting.
Now, are there exceptions to my opinion? You bet. Someone who looks at a person whose faith is demonstrated in their clothing fashions (say, a Hasidic Jew for example) and still wishes them a Merry Christmas might be less sensitive than they should be. In that case–assuming the speaker is familiar with the connection between the dress and the religion–it would be best to go for a more neutral greeting out of respect. If I know what religion the person is, I do my best to acknowledge and honor their traditions. But I still believe that person has the right to wish another person joy in the name of their religion if it is said with kindness and mutual respect. And the receiver of the comment can decide to not find it offensive. I also believe that in the case of acquaintanceship and friendship, people have a responsibility to inform (not proselytize) their friends of any particularities their faith requires in regard to dietary and other restrictions when it is going to be relevant to an event (say, a holiday party). The same could be said of one who is a vegetarian or who has a food intolerance.
Any discriminatory speech (using derogatory slang like the n-word) is something at which one could be justifiably offended. In cases of race and ethnicity, those uses of slang relate to a long history of discrimination and abuse. Similarly one could argue that every individual religion too has had a history of abuse and discrimination. So I suppose some would argue that knowingly wishing a non-Christian “Merry Christmas” is derogatory because you are not acknowledging their faith. Knowingly ignoring someone’s religion or cultural history is definitely insensitive and can be down right offensive. No doubt. We should remember, too, that the person may be unaware that what s/he said is offensive (surprising but true), at which point perhaps a little information rather than reaction is in order.
But when it comes to social interaction involving strangers, I have a different perspective. And I would hope this would be the attitude in all circumstances, even among friends and neighbors.
I am not a practicing Christian, though I was raised in a faith under that umbrella of faiths. I myself ascribe to no faith–just a personal code of ethics and morals that I hope derive themselves from the best parts of all religions. I have had friends who practice Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Wicca, Asatru, Atheism, Reformed Mormonism, and Agnosticism. None of those friends, particularly the non-Christian minority ones, take offense at the well-wishing slogans of other faiths. As a matter of fact, most take it in the spirit it is meant: “I wish joy to you during this time of gift-giving, joy and gratitude, family-celebrations, and religious observations!” When a Christian says to me, “I will pray for [fill in my current problem here],” or “God bless you,” I take that as a compliment. They are not condemning my beliefs, but they are willing to take the time to talk to their god on my behalf because they wish me well. They are hoping good things will come to me, wishing their god will give me the love they believe I deserve. That is a very loving act in my opinion. I do not say, “If your god is Christian, I don’t want your prayers.” How rude. I say “Thank you.” Would anyone turn down prayers from another faith in their time of need? I doubt it. So why take offense at similar well-wishing during a season in which so many faiths hold celebrations? Of course there are those who are so “devoted” to their faith as to believe I am damned. Their “I will pray for you” usually has a condescending air to it. It annoys me. Certainly. But why waste my time being angry at them? Instead I take a moment to pray for them, that they will learn compassion and tolerance. And then I move on. I would rather focus on the kind words coming my way.
I believe that we all relate to one another from our viewpoint. I also believe most of us try to be sensitive to people’s beliefs. So it is only natural that a Jew will say, “Happy Hanukkah,” and a Christian will say, “Merry Christmas,” and a Wiccan will say, “Blessed Yule,” and so on. They say it because that is what they know, that is who they are. They don’t say it with malice, with agenda, but rather with joy and a communal feeling of love. So why not say, “Happy Hanukkah to you!” to wish them a happy holiday? Or reply with your faith’s slogan and smile warmly? I’m sure that we can all reach across our differences this holiday season to recognize that when we reference our religions in our festive words, we are usually just offering up an opportunity to celebrate happy times together by connecting through the spirit of the times rather than the dogma of our religious differences.