In considering my decision on how to feel about the Merry Christmas v. Happy Holiday argument, I thought about what the season really means. Not the history of it, or the religious aspects, but how our culture, today, regards the holiday. Doing so, I have concluded that for most of us, even those who are moderately religious, Christmas has become a very secular event.
I participated in a program this year called Shop With a Cop. I took an underprivileged child shopping for Christmas presents. He had a $120 gift card to spend at Walmart; the money was raised by donations, including a large donation from Walmart. The child I took was the child of a couple from Palestine. They were Muslim. However, this little boy and his brother and sister knew everything about Christmas. They wanted their picture taken with Santa, they wanted a Christmas tree, and they were exchanging presents with friends. They were very thankful for the opportunity to participate in the Shop with a Cop program, and they celebrated Christmas without Christ.
Although the concept of Christmas began as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, that is merely paid lip service in most households. Most of the Christmas traditions that we value are not entirely of Christian origin anyway. People living in the pre-Christian Roman Empire brought evergreen branches and other green decorations in the house during the winter season. The Christmas Tree is believed to be a combination of a pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice and tree worship. The myth of Santa Claus comes from a fourth century bishop in Turkey named Nicholas, who cared for children and brought them gifts. Originally, gifts were exchanged on the Feast of St. Nicholas, but during the Reformation the Protestants changed the date to December 25th and said the gifts were from Jesus; the myth of Santa Claus moved to December 25th, too.
As for December 25th, there is really no evidence this was the birthday of Jesus. It has been celebrated on many different days over the course of Christian history, including December 7th and January 7th. Part of the explanation of the December 25th origin is the previously mentioned celebration of the Winter Solstice. Others speculate that was about the time of Christ's birth because it is about nine months after the believed Immaculate Conception of Jesus.
Many countries in the world celebrate Christmas, including many that do not have a majority Christian population. And in that celebration, many of the traditions are the same. There are different reasons it is celebrated in different parts of the world, including a left-over from Christian colonial rule and foreign cultural influence.
Christmas as we know it has hardly any Christian roots anymore. Instead, it is a combination of the Christianization of some old secular and pagan traditions, a holdover from Christian colonialism, and of course the commercialization of the holiday. In addition, there are other religious holidays that fall during the same time of year. And, Christmas is followed closely by New Year's Day, which is a holiday in the United States and other parts of the world.
What, if anything, does that mean to the debate between Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays? To start with, I believe Christians and non-Christians alike use the holiday season as an opportunity to spend time with family, extend well wishes to those in their community, donate to those less fortunate, exchange gifts with family and friends, and reach out to those they haven't seen often over the year. It has become a time of peace, love, acceptance, and forgiveness for all. It has become a holiday that our economy depends on. Christians, Jews, Muslims, people of other religions, and non-believers all benefit from these thoughts and traditions. Happy Holidays seems to be a more appropriate and inclusive greeting. It includes Christmas, so Christians have no reason to feel offended or left out if they are greeted that way, and it won't offend any non-Christians. Given the spirit of the season, why would one want to risk offending another when extending a warm holiday greeting?
On the other hand, since I believe that Christmas is no longer appropriately considered a Christian holiday, those non-Christians who are wished a Merry Christmas should not really be offended. They are, or should be, enjoying the same benefits and traditions of the holiday, even if in a purely secular fashion.
I will continue to error on the side of caution, be less offensive, and wish Happy Holidays when in doubt. Frankly, I think those who insist on Merry Christmas to show they are proud, in-your-face Christians, at the expense of being offensive, have an arrogant, self-righteous, and isolationist attitude about the holiday and their faith. Even from a wholly religious Christian perspective, is that what Christmas is about?