Merry Christmas or happy holidays?

It’s hard to believe that how we wish people well at this time of year has become a political litmus test.

Look, if you’re one of those people who is defending the right of that dude on Duck Dynasty to say whatever he wants, no matter how hateful or clueless it is, then I hope you also refrain from condemning people for saying something as benign as “Happy Holidays.”

Because you just can’t do both. Not without being either incredibly unaware, a complete hypocrite, or a devoted bully.

For one thing, “happy holidays” just makes sense, because there’s the New Year in the same season. “Happy holidays” is usefully plural.

Then there’s the reality that not everybody celebrates Christmas, and freedom of religion is another one of those grand American traditions worth being patriotic about (not that anybody in this country can really escape the overwhelming commercial presence of Christmas pretty much from Halloween on).

One of my Muslim students wished me a “happy holiday” as she said goodbye on the last day of class and I asked her if there were any Muslim holidays during the break. “No, just ordinary days for us,” she said, with a smile. I can’t help thinking that some of my otherwise quite lovely friends who get churlish about this would chill if they could simply meet people like this student in their daily lives.

Observant Jews don’t celebrate Christmas. Others sometimes do, much as  atheists and agnostics do. This latter group includes my parents, who indulged us with Santa Claus and a tree, but no religious content.

Other folks – Pagans and Wiccans, especially — celebrate the winter solstice instead, which Christians borrowed for their own uses a long time ago.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are Christians, don’t celebrate Christmas in the traditional sense. I wondered if the kids would feel deprived, but in-laws of mine had a tradition of going out on Black Friday and getting presents when they were cheap. The kids then got to play with everything right away, and no wrapping was required. They didn’t seem too unhappy with that deal.

Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians often celebrate Christmas according to a different calendar, usually Jan. 7.

Until recent generations, my husband tells me, Puerto Ricans’ largest celebration was originally El Dia de los tres reyes magos, or Three Kings Day, which falls on the twelfth day of Christmas, or January 6, known to Episcopalians like me as Epiphany. On the eve of that, children leave a box filled with grass for the wise men’s camels under the bed and wake to presents left there in its place.

Since my husband is Puerto Rican, my son grew up with a little bit of that tradition, although in our house (and on the island, too, these days) Three Kings Day is not a bigger deal than Christmas. It usually falls on an ordinary school day, so it’s not exactly easy to make a big production out of it. And getting our hands on grass this time of year isn’t very easy, either. Those poor camels usually have to make do with Christmas tree trimmings from us.

We never actually hewed to the Santa Claus tradition in our home, though it was inescapable in the culture. Frankly, I’m uncomfortable lying to my kid even about Santa Claus, though I didn’t go out of my way to demolish any belief that he might develop, either – and, in fact, at one point after he figured it out, he actually requested that we pretend Santa was real because that was way more fun.

Generally, however, we followed my husband’s custom and labeled my son’s presents as coming from the baby Jesus (on Christmas) or the Three Kings (on Three Kings Day) rather than from Santa Claus.  We do have the tree, though, and it’s always real. Alejandro and I love the smell, and I’m making up for all those years of putting the fake tree together down in Florida. We also live in Christmas tree farm country, so it’s another way of supporting local farmers.

So I’ll wish you a happy…  whatever it is you celebrate.

Personally, I’m going to celebrate the holidays and my semester break by taking a break from this blog and trying to catch up on other things, including lots and lots of reading, and a long visit with the folks. I’ll pop in here and there with tidbits, but there will be no long posts here until February.

What are your family’s unique holiday traditions? Feel free to share.

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2 thoughts on “Merry Christmas or happy holidays?

  1. I am no longer religious, but I came from a very unusual Protestant Christian church that didn’t believe in celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday (because it wasn’t commanded in the Bible), but we went all out with the Santa Claus, trees, presents, Rudolf, Grinch, etc. This despite the fact that our parents also didn’t believe in lying and told us from the beginning that Santa Clause was just a fun game. And we did have fun! One odd tradition we had for several years: On Christmas Eve me and my three sisters (all close in age) would camp out in one bedroom and take turns staying awake “waiting for Santa” and watching the clock so as not to sleep in past the time (usually 7:00am) when we were allowed to stampede down the stairs to open our stockings. Oh, yes, and the other tradition was stampeding down the stairs at the prescribed time to open our stockings. Writing this, now I’m wondering why we didn’t just use an alarm clock. However, it was a sufficiently fun activity that when I mentioned it to my kids (three boys), they instantly decided to try it too. So it was handed down to a new generation. Last week, my sons, now adults, reminisced that it was during one of these Christmas Eve sibling slumber parties, that my oldest son told his bothers there was no Santa Claus. With my first child, I couldn’t bear to lie to him, having been raised never to lie. Then I relaxed a little and let my second two children believe, while my poor oldest son had to bear the burden of this huge secret—until he couldn’t stand it any longer, apparently, lol . . . I had always given him credit for keeping that secret. Wait til your kids grow up and one day the shocking confessions will spill out when it is too late to do anything but laugh.

    • Ann, I’m sorry I didn’t even notice this waiting in moderation for a few days. Maybe if I’d had another kid I would have relaxed, too. I’m glad to hear we have some weird little scruples in common!

      I know we had Santa traditions as kids but I have no strong memory of either believing or coming to disbelieve in Santa. I do remember thinking that Christmas was a really weird phenomenon in Florida. People would spray fake snow on their windows, put fake snow men up, that kind of thing. It just didn’t go well with the palm trees.

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