Want To Wish Me a Merry Christmas?

Be my guest! (Not that you owe it to me, just like you don't owe Orin a beer.)

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.

Perhaps saying "Merry Christmas" is a reflection of the fact that most of America is culturally Christian, in the sense that it celebrates traditionally religious holidays. But that is indeed a fact. Saying "Happy Holidays" won't hide it, and saying "Merry Christmas" hardly rubs it in anyone's face (especially given the Santas and other paraphernalia you're in any event likely to see all around).

Moreover, Christmas is a day off for people without regard to religion (except for those who work in businesses that require them to work that day, there probably also largely without regard to religion, except for the comparatively devout). Chances are that your Jewish colleagues are doing something fun for Christmas. I am, and I had done that each year even before I married my culturally Christian wife. Why shouldn't we be merry on these occasions?

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.

So, Merry Christmas, everyone -- yeah, all you Russian Orthodox, too, I know all about your old calendar, but you're in a Gregorian country now, buddy. And best wishes for a happy new year!


Happy Generic Holiday

“Happy Holidays” irritates Eugene. He says that the generic quality of the greeting gets under his skin; “Merry Christmas” is fine with him. But why should the generic quality of a greeting bother him? What could be more generic than “Hello”? But I bet that “Hello” does not bother Eugene.

I suspect that what annoys Eugene is that the person who says “Happy Holidays” to him is afraid of offending him. The person knows or suspects that Eugene is Jewish and worries that “Merry Christmas” would offend a Jew. Odd to think that you can irritate a person by trying not to offend him! But the key here is the presumption that Eugene is religious and, more to the point, thin-skinned about his religion. The person who says “Happy Holidays” to Eugene reveals that he believes that Eugene is thin-skinned and priggish and presumes that Eugene is religious when Eugene in fact is a relaxed and good-natured fellow and not religious at all (or so I assume). No wonder Eugene is annoyed.

The problem for the interlocutor who perhaps does not know Eugene well is that some people would be offended by “Merry Christmas.” That greeting also presumes a great deal—namely, that the addressee is Christian or relaxed about religion or thinks of Christmas as a secular holiday. When that presumption turns out to be wrong, offense occurs. There is no doubt that “Happy Holidays” is a lower risk greeting than “Merry Christmas. The flight to generality occurs when people know each other less well and thus know less about their religious views and overall temperament. All in all, “Happy Holidays” is less presumptuous than “Merry Christmas;” so why does it annoy Eugene?

The answer is that more generic greetings (and other practices such as gift-giving) reflect social distance (as Eugene, says a way to "play it safe"); generic greetings should really only annoy when they are conveyed by people who are close to us. If a person who celebrates Christmas receives a greeting of “Happy Holidays” from his spouse or child or friends, the greeting would seem a bit chilly, and one would suspect that something is wrong. And if you celebrate and care about Christmas, a hearty “Merry Christmas” from a stranger sounds warmer than “Happy Holidays” because, it turns out, the stranger has something more in common with you than the stranger who says “Happy Holidays.” The stranger is engaging in a high-risk, high-return strategy; a generic “Happy Holidays” is less likely to offend a non-Christian even if it sounds chilly.

Eugene might have had in mind someone who knew him well when complaining about “Happy Holidays,” perhaps a colleague or student. Otherwise, he’s being a bit hard on people. Or perhaps he is annoyed by the general tendency for people to adopt increasingly bland and, sometimes, euphemistic terms in order to avoid the risk of offense in all circumstances. The fear of giving offense—especially to ethnic and religious minorities, and people who do poorly for various reasons (uneducated, lower class, disabled, and so forth)—is ubiquitous in our society, but we should be used to it by now. Social distance is the price we pay for diversity. We avoid excluding some people by being remote to everyone.


The Happy Holidays/Merry Christmas Controversy:

Co-bloggers Eric Posner and Eugene Volokh have written learned, insightful posts on whether or not it is offensive to say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" to people who aren't Christian. My own view is that the whole issue is vastly overblown. As Eugene often reminds us with respect to other issues, it's usually a good policy to avoid getting offended without a very compelling reason. There is no such thing here.

Non-Christians shouldn't take offense because some casual acquiantance wishes them "Merry Christmas." It's pretty unlikely that this is a serious attempt at conversion or an effort to put down atheism or non-Christian religions. By the same token, Christians and political conservatives shouldn't take offense if someone says "Happy Holidays." It's fairly certain that this isn't an effort to denigrate Christmas; nor is it PC hypersensitivity. Despite Bill O'Reilly's fulminations about the supposed "War Against Christmas," the position of Christmas and Christianity more generally are quite secure in American society. Just go to any shopping mall or workplace holiday Christmas party if you doubt it.

There is more than enough genuine religious prejudice in the world that we shouldn't invent bogus reasons to take offense. When it comes to this particularly pseudo-controversy, we would all be better off if everyone would just lighten up.


Happy Holidays and Genericity:

Given the unexpected attention being paid to my annoyance at "Happy Holidays," I ought to clarify things a bit.

First, I should repeat (but with emphasis added) that "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?" It doesn't bug me much, and when I say "I confess," I mean I'm confessing it to you in this post; I certainly wouldn't berate or even glower at someone who is telling me "Happy Holidays."

Second, my chief concern about it is precisely its "generic air": "Holidays" is an abstract, general term that has much less directly evocative force than the concrete, specific "Christmas." Christmas has a wide array of immediate connotations to it, some quite vivid, and my sense is that for 90+% of the public (including many people who aren't religiously Christian) they are highly positive: Family gatherings, presents, traditions, and the like. The term "holidays" is also positive, but with many fewer immediate connotations, precisely because it covers such a wide territory.

In recognizing this, I've been influenced by Deirdre McCloskey's excellent Economical Writing: "A good general rule of words is Be Concrete. A singular word is more concrete than a plural (compare 'Singular words are more concrete than plurals'). Definiteness is concrete. Prefer Pepperidge Farm to bread, bread to widgets, and widgets to X.... In a paper on Australia the phrase 'sheep and wheat' would do just fine in place of 'natural resource-oriented exports.'" To shift from the happy to the macabre, I recall a paper of mine in which I was recounting a particular incident, and wrote "Two years later, Harriet committed suicide." Editing, I realized that it should read, "Two years later, Harriet drowned herself." It's not that this conveys much more practically useful information; but the concreteness makes the statement more vivid and immediately accessible.

Returning to "Happy Holidays," I am indeed bothered (as Eric correctly assumed) by the reason from the change from "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays"; I believe it was prompted by an excessive concern about offending people who should not reasonably be offended by the old term. But if the change could have happened with no cost, I would be much less bothered. What bothers me more is precisely that the change was costly: It strikes me that a certain amount of emotional immediacy was lost in the change from Merry Christmas to Happy Holidays.

To be sure, though, the loss wasn't vast. And I sympathize with those who want to avoid offending or alienating listeners, even if I think the feeling of offense or alienation on the part of the listeners is unjustified, so I wouldn't hold the change against those who are now saying "Happy Holidays." That's part of why I'm only a bit annoyed by the phrase. But I am indeed a bit annoyed by it, by what it portends for some such changes in the future, and what it symbolizes about some such changes in the past.


More Christmas Wishes:

From Prof. Geoffrey Pullum on Language Log (one of my favorite blogs):

For about thirty years, Professor Laurie Taylor (retired from the University of York) has been doing a humor column in Times Higher Education, a U.K. university administration magazine, in the form of a newsletter from an imaginary Poppleton University. This week it included a painfully awkward message from an equally imaginary Interfaith Chaplain, struggling to find some kind of contentful and seasonal greeting that couldn't possibly offend anyone of any faith:

You know, very soon we will be reaching that special time of the year when people who subscribe to certain religious beliefs rather than to others will be celebrating what they regard as a very significant event. May I therefore take this opportunity to wish all such believers a very happy special time of the year...

Language Log, however, is not quite so inclined to imagine that simple words of greeting will shock or disgust anyone; it seems to us that such worries are rather closely related to word taboo, with which we have little sympathy. So it has been our custom for some years to come out quite boldly and use the C word at this season. We love writing for you, and as time permits, in our odd moments of spare time between full-time university jobs or research projects, we will continue to do so. And whatever your religion or lack of it, we wish you a happy Christmas Day.

Hear, hear!