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Merry Christmas: How “happy holidays” limits inclusivity

By Kerrick Chavarria, December 16 2023—

The debate over whether or not to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” dawns on the Canadian populace once again. Last year, 70 per cent of Canadians in a survey preferred to say the former. Since there is no offence to be given, or religious attributions to be made, the usage of language once again must be contested and deemed as safe. 

On the one hand, religious identity is closely intertwined with celebrations and is perhaps a factor to consider in individuals distancing themselves from the expression. The Survey Center on American Life found that there was a decrease in religiosity from Millennials to Generation Z. Part of this comes from wanting to dismantle Christmas by addressing its historicity. For example, many will neglect the origin of Dec. 25th coming from Sextus Julius Africanus in the second century by associating it with paganism, or the nature of some of the notorious iconography.

On the other hand, this comes from the need to recognize minorities and their cultures and faith systems. Recall that the Canadian Charter grants the ability to practise any religion that is so desired, even if abstinence is one. The Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion made a calendar for the year 2023 which is inclusive towards those whose holidays have been neglected and unrecognised.

However, the question of whether or not this is reflected in the workplace has been contested in recent years.

So what do we make of the specialized language? 

If the main principle behind this move is to consider the religious affiliation (entrenched in the holiday), you might need to reflect on the secularised version of Christmas. Having started in the 19th century, traces of a distinction away from the church were seen in the carols and festive practices. To neglect the history of the holiday is to neglect two distinct categories: the Christians of all denominations and to project a capitalistic mindset that displays the homey virtues of love, togetherness and family. 

An adoption has been made of a religious festivity to suit the individual and non-religious groups. Nevertheless, its history is neglected and blanketed- even challenged. If you want to be authentic, recognize the authenticity of the Christian celebration of Christmas.

The other basis for this neutral phrase is the principle that the mainstream Christmas has been dominant in the west for quite some time, especially considering the liturgical calendar. Therefore, it must follow that we should soften the blow by using neutral phraseology to accommodate everyone.

Let’s posit that a non-western holiday was dominant in the November season. Suppose Diwali was what the world observed. Would the best solution, as a majority, really be to just not grant the numerous holidays and to instead say “happy holidays” as a grey blanket over the individuals in the minority? Should the history of the singing of bhajans (devotional deity songs) be shrouded with alternative meanings?

Rather than to publicly acknowledge your neighbour’s holiday, while still choosing to practise your convictions, you choose to shroud them with what appears to be culturally sensitive.   

Better to use an explicit outward expression than to strip it away from every citizen. Safety doesn’t bide well with forced hidden practice. Consider Spain’s monarchy forcing the Moriscos and Marranos to practise their faith in secret in the 14th and 15th centuries. In a similar fashion, it should be applied to language. 

Saying “Merry Christmas” allows for a discovery process to be made: you find someone who doesn’t practise your selected holiday or maintains your religious observances and ends up starting a dialogue. You let them state what they believe and let them observe it publicly because they have the right to coexist peacefully with their identity being made known. Simply because you recognize an individual, it doesn’t mean you annul their right to individual practice.  

The alternative is to say “Happy Holidays” and ensure that the other party does not get to live their faith or cultural identity publicly. This, contrary to popular belief, is subtle censorship and an infraction on the very principle of inclusivity. The worst someone could say is “Merry Christmas” yet again and suffer an explanation from their neighbour about the holiday they celebrate.

This article is a part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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