It may be most wonderful time of the year, but unfortunately, it’s also that time of the year when arguments arise about whether we ought to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy holidays” to one another. As a Jewish American who generally defaults to “Happy Holidays” unless I know for sure that someone celebrates Christmas, I wanted to learn what drives people to say “Merry Christmas” to strangers, knowing that they may be saying it to people who don’t celebrate the holiday.
Out of curiosity, I posted to my Facebook wall to ask my friends and family which greeting they default to and how they decide which to say to whom. I also asked, “If you don’t celebrate Christmas, how do you feel about being wished a merry holiday-you-don’t-celebrate? And if you do celebrate Christmas, how do you feel about being wished a generically happy holiday?”
The discussion generated more than 50 comments, with plenty of back-and-forth, and I was proud to see that the resulting conversation was so interesting and generally respectful. I found it enlightening and, yes, sometimes frustrating, but I also appreciated that so many of my friends & family entered into the conversation with open minds– and that a few even reconsidered why they say what they say as a result of it.
And then, at the end of it, someone I barely know hopped onto the thread to leave a dismissive meme about people being “offended by everything.” Flustered and angry, I tried to ignore it, but the next day, I woke up to a short screed from the same person. She had defriended me without my even responding to her.
So let me take a minute to be very clear about what I do and do not take offense to.
I’m not offended by kind people telling me “Merry Christmas.”
But I was offended in elementary school when a girl’s mom told her she couldn’t play with me because I was going to burn in hell for being Jewish.
I was offended in middle school when someone asked me to see my horns because he learned Jews are branded with the literal mark of the devil.
And I was offended in high school when, during an argument, a friend of mine screamed “Jew bitch” in my face when he could’ve just gone with any other insult.
The list goes on, and those things offend me way more than a kind and well-intentioned “Merry Christmas” ever could.
But precisely because of all those times I’ve been actually offended, I want kind, well-intentioned people to take just a minute to think about their words and whether those have the potential to marginalize others, even – and perhaps especially – when they’re intended in a joyful spirit.
No, I’m not offended by anyone telling me “Merry Christmas.”
But you know what I am offended by?
Having my views wholesale dismissed by people in the religious majority who have never had to think, not for a single minute, about whether or not everyone they’re speaking to is exactly like them.
Think twice before telling other people the things that hurt them shouldn’t hurt, especially if they have experienced things you will never have to. Words matter, and just because you are a kind and well-intentioned person – even a liberal, politically correct, social justice-loving one – doesn’t mean that your words can’t inadvertently convey a benign sort of oppression, too.
Happy holidays to all, and to all a good night.
Kate Bigam is a Jewish communal professional, a social media strategist, and a freelance writer living in Cleveland. She blogs at GreatestEscapist.com.