Recently, some conservative commentators claim there is a war being waged against Christmas. Bill O’Reilly, Pat Buchanan, and Sarah Palin all have decried a war on Christmas being waged by corporations that ban “merry Christmas” or school administrators who change the name of a Christmas concert to a “holiday” concert. They argue that such changes remove Christmas from its traditional place in American society.
It is important to remember that their image of Christmas’ role in American history is a myth. Christmas did not become a national holiday until 1870 or nearly 100 years after the Declaration of Independence. That means that through the early years of the United States, mail was delivered, government offices were open, and business was conducted much as usual on Christmas day. In fact, throughout the 19th century, many Americans, particularly in New England, did not celebrate Christmas because they viewed it as too secular a holiday. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists celebrated Christmas.
Nor is it true that Christmas has been exactly sidelined today. Through most of December, it is hard to listen to the radio without hearing Christmas music. Christmas-themed television shows dominate. In most of the nation’s cities and towns, community events this time of year revolve around Christmas. Theatre houses show “A Christmas Carol.” And in the 21st century, the day is observed much more than it was by early Americans. Today, it is hard to find a restaurant or a retail store open on Christmas day. On no other day of the year is there a holiday more widely celebrated.
Yet, it is true that something has changed. But it is not due to some nefarious “war on Christmas.” It is primarily because society is more diverse than it was 50 years ago. The difference in how society treats expressions regarding Christmas is a reflection of how our society has changed religiously. Over 20 percent of Americans today consider themselves non-Christians or unaffiliated with any religion. That compares to less than 14 percent 20 years ago.
That means a store clerk who says “Merry Christmas” has a 1 in 5 chance of addressing someone who does not consider himself or herself a Christian. Businesses have no interest in offending customers. Even beyond the commercial usage, using the term “happy holidays” is a safe way to express a salutation without risking offense toward an individual whose religious affiliation and sentiments about Christmas are unknown to the person expressing the greeting.
I have professional colleagues I interact with beyond BYU whose religious views I may not know. If I am aware they are Catholic or Protestant, I will wish them a “Merry Christmas.” But if I know they are Jewish or Muslim or agnostic, or if I am not sure about their religious affiliation, I will wish them a happy holiday.
This isn’t because I don’t consider myself a Christian or don’t celebrate Christmas, rather, it is just my effort to be sensitive to the fact that others may not share my beliefs or practices and I want to be considerate of them. For those of us who celebrate Christmas, it is not necessary to use the public sphere to compel those who don’t do so to join in the celebration, particularly if they have no religious reason to do so. I often have wondered how a Jew or a Muslim feels on Christmas Day when the vast majority are celebrating a holiday they do not believe in. We should empathize with them rather than disparage them for not celebrating.
Those who might be offended by “happy holidays” should consider how they would feel if the roles were reversed and the society was primarily Jewish and this time of year everywhere they went someone wished them a happy Hanukah and asked how they were celebrating the holiday. So when a stranger says “happy holidays” rather than “merry Christmas,” Christians should not be offended. Instead, we should accept the fact that it is a sign of sensitivity to others in our more diverse society rather than some attempt to wage war on Christmas.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.