Thursday, December 15, 2005

Christmas and Culture Wars

An issue which has been coming up in a major way in the USA but much less over here is the "Happy Holidays" question, and I'd like to explain my thoughts on the matter. The question is, to oversimplify wildly, whether it is better to wish "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays." It may sound like a very small matter, but it is a raging debate across the pond.

The problem in America is that a number of big retail chains have put up posters with the latter on rather than the former. A section of the public there, mainly the religious right, have taken this as the latest assault in the "War on Christmas" (I seriously get the impression that Americans simply love to call campaigns wars).

The reason that the stores are doing this is because not only Christmas is celebrated at this time of year. Hannukah and the Winter Solstice are also celebrated in what is known as the holiday season, often instead of the Christian Christmas. "Happy Holidays" is seen as more inclusive, including all of these as well as non-believers and others (like Jehovah's Witnesses) who do not celebrate Christmas. It is seen as extending the message out to as many people as possible.

The religious right, predictably, sees this as an assault on Christmas, watering down the Christian-ness of the season. It is part of an intense dissatisfaction with the way that the season has become more popular and less religious. I am going to explain why I think the controversy has not spread to the UK, and why the secularisation of the season is a good thing.

As an atheist, it is hardly surprising to find me on this side. Nevertheless, it is worth me explaining something. I have no problem with religious people of whatever persuasion celebrating their holy days (within legal and ethical limits of course - no blood soaked sacrifices if can be avoided!). I do however see a certain spoilt attitude in the way certain people want to have their cake and eat it - enjoying the season in their own way while preventing others from doing so in their own. Unsurprisingly, I'm in the "live and let live" category.

Why is the controversy miniscule here? The first answer may be that we simply seem less enthusiastic about religion-based culture wars here. People are more likely to face controversies like abortion based on facts and realities, rather than resorting to holy edicts. Perhaps that is because despite the historic ties between the state and the Church of England, far more people here (religious or non) prefer the law to be secular. Therefore, even when it comes to non-legal issues like this, there is much less enthusiasm for turning an issue into a religious conflict.

Secondly though, I believe that we think of Christmas in a different way here too. In the USA, Christmas generally seems to refer to the Christian holiday. Here, I think people are much more inclined to think of it as the season as a whole. "Merry Christmas" evokes warm feelings of family, togetherness, decorations and presents. (On a side note, people often criticise the last of these as materialistic, but I think this misses the social role that giving presents has. It bonds people together. I certainly feel that even a worthless or uninteresting present from a friend can be worth a lot more than no present at all.)

What do I mean by this different way of seeing Christmas? Well, in one US report I read, one non-Christian said that while not in any way being offended by a sign saying "Merry Christmas," it felt somewhat like being wished "Happy Birthday" when it was the wisher's, and not the listener's, birthday. While the listener appreciates that there is a celebration, they do not see its relevance to them. This makes a lot of sense, but I do not think it applies here. More likely, someone here will just see the phrasing as a generic expression of goodwill.

The thing is that *both* sides in the US see it as refering to the specifically Christian holiday. Clearly those who prefer "Happy Holidays" see it as more inclusive (and let's get real, the retail chains in question are going to want no part in any "War on Christmas" - they just want to appeal to more people). Those against it also must feel that "Merry Christmas" refers specifically to the Christian holiday, otherwise they would not bother fighting the new wording. They are determined to keep the general greeting refering to the Christian tradition, and that just shows that their motivation is to keep that as the primary (perhaps only) message heard over the holiday season. Refusing to accept "Happy Holidays" is, in a way, trying to hide the existence of other traditions which might want to celebrate.

In the UK on the other hand, I think people are perfectly aware that Christmas time is far more than the celebration of a Christian holiday.

And I think it is perfectly right that it should be. Christmas essentially originated as a Christian holiday pasted on top of the pagan holiday of Saturnalia, from which we get such traditions as present giving. I can honestly say that I have never heard a pagan (and I have known one or two) angrily demanding that the season be kept pagan. Since aspects like present giving were not even Christian in origin, it would be absurd to restrict them to Christians only. The season was special long before Christmas arose.

Even if this had not been true, other religious holidays take place at the same time (and non-religious holidays like Kwanzaa). There is no reason Christmas should hold the season captive beyond the fact that there are more Christians than members of other religions.

And what of us non-religious folk? One might argue that even if Christians get their Christmas, Jews their Hannukah etc, then there is no place for celebration for those without a religion. I think this is misguided. Even within one religion, there might be a thousand different ways to celebrate the season, including taking the best elements from other traditions (like the present-giving, all those centuries ago). There is no reason why the non-religious should not be allowed to celebrate the season as they see fit, equally borrowing those bits of other traditions as they see fit. I see no reason why every family and community should not have a time of the year to celebrate, in whatever way they see fit. It is the very best of multiculturalism, and it is a celebration of being human.

So let those who desire celebrate Christmas time religiously, others celebrate it secularly, and let's not squabble about who 'owns' the season. And if retailers in the USA wish to encompass all these diverse celebrations, then that is good sense. Over here, I think we may already have gone a step further. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays folks, and have a jolly good New Year.


Abi said...

Season's Greetings to you too :-)

crazy/evil/chocoholic/crazy-girl said...

you may ber interested to know that a few years ago there was a small controversy when teh city council decided to put up "Merry christmas" signs in the town centre but put up "Happt Eid" signs on the cowley one objected to the actual signs, just to the fact that the council were so visually segregating the different cultural 'areas' of oxford. i dont know much more than that...
see you soon, and a happy holidays! :P

crazy/evil/chocoholic/crazy-girl said...

thought you mite find this interesting...

Anonymous said...

As we rapidly move towards yet another annual milestone, I wish you the best of the holiday season and New Year. However....My lawyer has asked me to point out that no Warranty of a "Best" Holiday Season or New Year is Made or Implied, and in No Case shall the Sender of this Greeting Card be Liable in Any Way for your Failure to Have said "Best" time, nor even a particularly "Good" one. Further, the Receiver Releases and Holds Harmless the Sender for any Paper Cuts or any Other Injury, Real or Imagined, that the Receiver may incur as a result of Any Act relating to this Card, Including (but not Limited to) its Creation, Delivery, Reception, Handling, Reading, Display or Disposal.

Further, the Sender disclaims that the Card, or its Cover Illustration, represents a Preference for Race, Age, Cultural Identity, Sexual Identity, Gender, or Religion, or Lack Thereof, and Further the Sender Positively Affirms any Preference the Receiver may Have (or Lack) for any of these Items or for any other Identity or Desire.

In Addition, it should be Noted that any Local Taxes, Registration Fees, or any other Cost shall be Borne by the Receiver. Your Mileage may Vary. Not Transferable. May not be Used for any Illegal Purpose. Void where Prohibited or in the Case of Intentional Misuse, Abuse, Accident, Neglect, Mishandling, Improperly Maintained Equipment, Inclement Weather, or Wear and Tear.