With that greeting, I have immediately offended many Christian folk in the United States.
Since the late 1990s, the Christian Right has repeatedly suggested this innocuous greeting is a covert tool in the so-called “War on Christmas.” (We learned recently that apparently we now also have a “War on Thanksgiving.”) In this War on Christmas, an imagined left wing conspiracy has set out to undermine Christianity and remove it from its rightful place as the dominant religion in the U.S.
“Happy Holidays,” along with the removal of nativity scenes from courthouse lawns and the banning of sectarian enactments of the Christmas story in public elementary schools, is evidence of secularism’s war against Christianity. Faithful Christians must resist by shouting “Merry Christmas” at every opportunity, as if the phrase is a weapon against hordes of secularists and people of other faiths out to deny Christians the right to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
Only no one has tried to end Christmas, much less prevent Christians from celebrating it.
In every Christian home and in every Christian church, the celebration continues without government interference or secular plots to overthrow it. We still read the story of a young woman giving birth in a stable. We still put on Christmas pageants in our churches and sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” at Christmas Eve services. We pray for peace. We watch the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, and we listen to Beyoncé or Gwen Stefani or Brad Paisley, Patti Loveless, Faith Hill or just about every other country musician sing “Silent Night” (with apologies to those whose tastes for musical renditions of “Silent Night” run in another direction).
“Recognizing that others are celebrating different religious or secular traditions is not a threat to Christianity.”
No, we are not in the midst of a war on Christmas. Rather, the negative reaction toward “Happy Holidays” is about something else entirely that I believe has to do with changing demographics, the politicization of Christianity, and Christian fragility.
As the U.S. population has changed and as the culture has come to recognize that American identity and Christian identity are, in fact, two separate (though often overlapping) things, many people have opted to express themselves, as an expression of love and welcome, by using more inclusive language – including a holiday greeting that applies to everyone. After all, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Wiccans and Neo-pagans also have holy days in December.
Recognizing that others are celebrating different religious or secular traditions is not a threat to Christianity. Saying “Happy Holidays” to everyone we meet on the street can actually be an expression of Christian faith, a demonstration of kindness, warmth, acceptance, and love that transcends narrow sectarianism and reflects God’s inclusive embrace.
In a previous article, I wrote about “Christian fragility,” drawing on Robin DiAngelo’s work on white fragility. Christian fragility arises when Christians are confronted with differences that threaten their dominance. In response, they become angry and defensive, more entrenched in their own beliefs and practices, and less receptive to open dialogue.
That’s why so many conservative Christian voters resonated with Donald Trump’s promise that “We’re going to start saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” It appealed to their sense of besiegement by a culture that symbolically denied Christian dominance by suggesting we recognize other people in our holiday greetings. (To see Christian fragility in action, see what happened when, according to local citizens, the mayor of Charleston, West Virginia, insulted God and shunned Jesus by changing the name of the city’s Christmas parade to the “Winter Parade” in an effort to be more inclusive.)
True Christian faith, however, is not fragile. It does not need to be propped up by a symbolic greeting snarled at every passer-by to assert the dominance of Christianity over other faiths and non-faiths. The threat to Christianity is not saying, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The real threat is people who claim to be Christian not acting like Christians.
Christian faith is much better served when Christians do as Jesus said – when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned and love our enemies and our neighbors as our selves. The world is much more likely to find that vision of Christian faith compelling rather than the one in which, in the name of Christian faith, people proclaim “Merry Christmas” with a hint of arrogance, defensiveness and aggression.
“We don’t need to weaponize ‘Merry Christmas’ to give witness to our faith.”
Instead of asserting our right to say “Merry Christmas,” we should try living the Christmas story – the story of a vulnerable young couple and a baby who later became refugees in a strange country, of common laborers and foreigners who came to see the baby that the governmental powers of the day were trying to kill, of those same foreigners who resisted governmental power by going home another way.
The transformative power of the Gospel is not dominance over others but unconditional love exemplified in incarnation, God’s loving, welcoming presence in the midst of humanity in all of our brokenness.
The baby in the manager does not need us to assert our right to say “Merry Christmas.” In fact, the Apostle Paul urges us to follow the example of Christ by choosing at the appropriate times to put our rights aside for the sake of others.
Saying “Happy Holidays” does not pose an existential threat to Christianity. Spoken in love, the phrase can demonstrate Christian faith in action by acknowledging the full humanity of others who may practice a different faith or no faith at all. We don’t need to weaponize “Merry Christmas” to give witness to our faith. We can show the true meaning of Christmas by our actions in the world, including the simple ways we greet other people on the street, in the mall, at school or at work.
Go ahead. Be part of the counter-resistance. During this season of Advent and Christmas, say “Happy Holidays” warmly and often.