In Praise of “Happy Holidays”

News at Home

Mr. O'Donnell is an associate professor of history at The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA

Here we go again. If it’s December then it must be time for that annual Christmas tradition established a few years ago—the outrage mongering by conservatives over an alleged “War on Christmas” being waged by a cadre of secularists who employ the phrase, “Happy Holidays.” Particularly galling to these self-appointed defenders of tradition are retailers that avoid the word Christmas in their advertising and in-store decorations. In recent years groups like Focus on the Family, the Catholic League, and the American Family Association have launched a variety of vigilance campaigns, including an “It’s OK to Wish Me A Merry Christmas” button campaign and various boycott threats and “watch lists” identifying “Christmas-unfriendly” retailers.

I must admit that the expression Happy Holidays once struck me as vapid and meaningless—essentially the December version of the all-time vapid and meaningless phrase of modern times, “Have a nice day.” But all this War on Christmas hysteria in recent years has led me to a new and heartfelt appreciation for the expression, for I see that it embodies both a fundamental American value and, strange as it may sound, one of Christmas’s core religious ideals.

I should point out before wading any further into this minefield that I come to this contentious issue as a Christian who attends church weekly and even sings in the choir. In other words, a cranky, axe-grinding atheist or free-wheeling new age spiritualist I am not.

So why defend Happy Holidays? Let’s begin by focusing on the profound republican virtue that lies at the heart of Happy Holidays: respect for each and every citizen’s right to their own religious beliefs (or non-beliefs). As Americans we take for granted the idea that people of different faith traditions can live together in harmony. But history makes it abundantly clear that America’s remarkably successful experience with religious pluralism is the exception, not the rule. Who can calculate the oceans of blood spilled over the centuries, from the Crusades to Darfur, in the name of religious zealotry? Indeed, American society was once beset with religiously-inspired violence. Scores died in anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon riots in the 1840s and 1850s.

It has taken several centuries to develop and enshrine America’s much-cherished tradition of religious tolerance. This effort has succeeded even as the number of religious faiths in America greatly multiplied. It’s a hard won tradition and Americans should remain ever vigilant in protecting it from the any group that seeks to impose its orthodoxy on everyone else. The “Merry Christmas, or Else” zealots are not preaching violence, but they are promoting a dangerous, unwelcome, and ultimately un-American form of religious intolerance.

Even more compelling, especially for those (like me) who consider Christmas a religious holiday, is the spiritual argument in defense of the phrase Happy Holidays. Has anyone seriously interested in the religious meaning and significance of Christmas stopped to contemplate the absurdity of a campaign demanding that retailers, as Focus on the Family put it a few years ago, “put Christmas back in the holidays”?

Retailers? You mean the people leading the relentless charge to transform Christmas into a grotesque exhibition of materialist excess, are now responsible for upholding the true meaning of Christmas? Would anyone take seriously a campaign that urged beer brewers to “put sobriety back into tailgating”? Or Las Vegas to “put commitment back into express weddings”?

Put simply, the charge that individuals and retailers who fail to say Merry Christmas is itself a very real assault on Christmas. After all, the holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus, an event the Bible tells us was hailed by a choir of angels singing, “Peace on Earth and goodwill toward men.” Raging against the inclusive, tolerant and ultimately harmless phrase, Happy Holidays, runs directly counter to this theme.

Indeed, it’s like making war on Christmas.

So here’s wishing you Happy Holidays – and all that implies.

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More Comments:

Deven Black - 12/15/2009

I am completely non-religious but I come from practicing Jewish stock, am married to a religious woman and keep a kosher home. So much for my bona fides.

I ENJOY hearing people wishing me or others Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Good Fast (for Ramadan, many of my students are Islamic) or any other expression of good will. Though I don't share their religious beliefs I do share their implied wish for happiness, health, family, and all the other things that make holidays enjoyable.

Reformed Scrooges and others who INSIST that others share their holiday expression detract from our enjoyment of and participation in their or anyone else's holiday.

So it is with a mountain of benevolence and warm feelings that I wish all a healthy, warm and fortuitous Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and New Year.

vaughn davis bornet - 12/7/2009

The title I just used is the one I used on Christmas letters mailed in mid-December from 1951 or so until today.

I won't swear I didn't also use Happy Holidays now and then, enroute or incidentally.

It seems to me that if I use freedom of speech to convey my belief in a religious Christmas to someone, I am only doing what comes naturally--and legally.

Do I have to steer, direct, and censor my every greeting to suit what I "think" are the beliefs of every person I meet? Thus: this new arrival got his holidays cancelled by his employer. This one is unemployed, so he actually isn't getting a "holiday." Must I defer?

I am of the impression that vast numbers of Jews have long since celebrated a very merry Christmas without giving it a lot of self-doubt. I do admit that some of athiest persuasion have gone overboard with close to hatred when (as happened in my town this year) a Christmas tree gets erected in a public school.

I recently, as a result, read major Supreme Court decisions in re that sort of thing. Believe it or not, all that was needed was--not removal of the tree--but addition of plastic reindeer or snowmen to "secularize" the Christmas symbol!

Try as I may, I can recall no instance in which my greeting Merry Christmas resulted in the retort: "Keep it to yourself," or, years ago, maybe, "Says You!"

Anyway, this is what a veteran of 92 holiday celebrations on December 25 is thinking as one more approaches....


Christopher K. Philippo - 12/7/2009

It's hard to see a War on Christmas when Christmas is everywhere before Thanksgiving, even.

Stephen Colbert amusingly declared there is a War on Happy Holidays, that people attacking it are denying Christmas is a holy day.

I don't think when Bing Crosby sang "Happy Holidays" he was thinking of Kwanzaa and Eid like the nativists, racists and Islamophobes seem to believe. (Admittedly, that was in a movie about holidays the year 'round, but the phrase seems primarily attacked to Christmas and New Year's.)

I have been curious how far back the phrase goes, anyone know?

Gary M Craig - 12/7/2009

Thanks. I always liked the phrase "Happy Holidays" and am very christian myself. Intolerance is a sin. Anger is a sin. Being mean is a sin. Of course we should take and make a stand but it should be done as Pauls said, "Speak the truth in love". On the other side I am offended by those who would deride me if I choose to say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Honukka" (sp), etc. Let there be peace and gentle, kindly persuasion, not hatred and anger.
My progenitors suffered at the hands of Missourri mobs as they were LDS people of faith. I, thankfull, have personally experienced only very little direct bigotry in my life and hope it stays that way. I certainly hope I am never one to participate in religious hatred. Thanks for the nice article.

Robin Main - 12/7/2009

I can do "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays." I just think that Christians need to re-examine why we are being so demanding over a simple greeting that supposed to communicate goodwill. Does our demanding attitudes and taking offense demonstrate the character of Christ? In my personal opinion, no.