The cashier at the store in the red Santa hat smiled and said, “Happy Holidays” as she handed me my change, I smiled back and said, “Merry Christmas.”
I never envy retail workers and during the Christmas shopping season my heart really goes out to them. It can be the worst time of year to be dealing with the public. There are those cheerful souls, the ones who come in from pouring rain or drifting snow, if they don’t find exactly what they want they are delighted enough to find something they didn’t expect. They are content to wait in line knowing everyone is busy and the store staff is working as hard as they can. These are the ones who thank the floor person for the extra help, hum Christmas carols to themselves while they let the old woman with the huge package ahead of them in line; they hand out candy canes to the checkout clerk and drop a dollar into the Salvation Army bucket. But these folks are literally one in one hundred.
Grumpy and Unhappy customers seem to be much more common, maybe one in thirty.
Grumpy the Holiday Shopper comes in with their nose out of joint that they had to walk a whole 100m across the parking lot and they grumble about the weather. This person is likely as not to go ballistic when the latest in thing is sold-out and crossly interrogate to floor person to see if there might be one in the back storage. They stand unhappily in line sure that the store staff is dawdling just to make people wait and feel very put out if another register is opened and the manager assists the old woman with the huge package behind them to the front of the new line. To this customer there is nothing safe to say. Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, saying either could land you in trouble if you are a store clerk during the Christmas season.
It could be that Grumpy the Holiday shopper is not a Christian. They are just there because their toaster broke and they needed one. It could be that they are very sensitive to the different faiths of our plural society, they don’t want to see anyone offended and are put-out that they have to buy Christmas presents for their nominally religious family members because they are going to “The Big Holiday Feast” at their mother-in-law’s. For any myriad of reasons Grumpy the Holiday shopper doesn’t want to be wished “Merry Christmas”. And Lord have mercy on the clerk or store manager if they are because Grumpy is going to take out all their Holiday frustrations on them both. And if the clerk and manager don’t bow low enough and act subservient enough you can bet that Grumpy will be writing letters to headquarters instead of Santa.
So the manager will bow low to Grumpy and tell the staff “No more ‘Merry Christmas’, let’s just stick to ‘Happy Holidays’”. Happy Holidays is safe enough. No one could be offended there. It is traditional, been around a while, featured in songs and cards for as long as any of us remember. Safe, won’t make anyone angry and certainly won’t lead to complaint letters being fired off to head quarters.
Then comes in Unhappy the Christmas shopper. They are there because it is Christmas and they are Christian. They Celebrate Christmas with a Capital C and they always remember the Reason for the Season, it is emblazoned on the bumper sticker on the back of their car. Last week at worship they heard a great sermon about the “War on Christmas” and, being a good prayer warrior, they are looking to defend traditional Christian values in a secular world, while making a quick stop at the local store to pick up the latest consumer item. They aren’t happy to be there. They are less happy when they realize that said item is sold out. They are not happy that the floor person won’t go back to the back room to look for it on the flimsy excuse that they had checked earlier. They don’t want to wait in line and when the new register opens up and the store manager escorts the old woman with the huge package to the front of the new line they feel a twinge of guilt that they hadn’t noticed her behind them because they were too busy looking at the clerks un-godly nose piercing and wondering if they would be able to find a quick way to witness to them. Finally Unhappy reaches the front of the line and forces out a cheerful “Merry Christmas” to which the clerk dutifully replies “Happy Holidays. How dare they not acknowledge the religious significance of the Lord’s birth in our Great Nation founded on Faith, God and Religious Liberty? Lord have mercy on the clerk and store manager because Unhappy is going to take out all their Christmas frustrations on them both. And if the clerk and manager don’t bow low enough and act subservient enough you can bet that Unhappy will be writing letters to headquarters instead of Santa.
It is at this point that the floor person reconsiders the offer to work in their brother’s auto body shop, the store clerk with the nose-piercing decides to go back to college and the store manager decides to enlist in the Army. Life in retail during the big shopping season is hard. And right now the “Christmas wars” are just adding to the frustration.
I have mentioned before that I am a big fan of a firm separation of Church and State. But I am also a big fan off people just lightening up a little bit and not taking things so very, very seriously. If your local “Shop Mart” or “Mall Store” aren’t plastering Nativity scenes and “Merry Christmas” all over the store it is actually pretty normal. As a child I remember Christmas in “Small Town America”. I remember a lot of “Happy Holidays” banners, sure the court house had a nativity in the front, but the decorations around town consisted mostly of white garland and green and red Christmas bows and balls and lots of flocking. Ahhh the 70s in ranch country Oregon.
But it also will not kill anyone, nor should it offend anyone to hear a store clerk say “Merry Christmas”. And when stores and shopping centers do the almost unheard of thing of having “Christmas” included in something it is more a matter that most Americans celebrate the nominally Christian Holiday know as Christmas by shopping for all the latest consumer good and giving lots of gifts. It is the minority of Americans who actually celebrate Christmas the Nativity of Jesus Christ. While Christians “own” the Nativity of Christ the word “Christmas” does not necessarily dictate that one is celebrating that event. “Christmas” is also celebrated as a completely secular event by many people. Jesus is the “Reason for the Season” but there are other reasons to celebrate Christmas and not all Americans are in it for the same thing. In a free society where diverse religious expression is honored that should be OK. I think both the secular and Christian community would benefit from remembering this.
So, for what it is worth, here are my “let’s be sensible and get a grip” suggestions:
Jesus is the reason for my season. If you want to celebrate Santa and presents have fun. You can even call your celebration Christmas. It is OK to celebrate Christmas however you want. It can be a religious holiday or not as a person’s conscience and pleasure dictate.
If your local community has a Nativity Scene, Christmas tree or “Charles Dickens’s Christmas on Main Street Celebration” that’s OK. Because the community, municipality, state or other, is not creating a State religion they are honoring the diverse religious expression of their community by paying a brief and innocuous homage to a very important celebration of one of their cultural groups. If you would like them to honor your particular celebration look into setting up something. Chair the annual Summer Solstice Picnic and art festival in the park and see what happens. If your Christian neighbors complain promise them that come Christmas time their Nativity Scene is safe on the Courthouse lawn and that the annual Summer Solstice Picnic and art festival does not mean the community, municipality, state or other, is creating a State religion they are honoring the diverse religious expression of their community by paying a brief and innocuous homage to a very important celebration of one of their cultural groups.
If your local school has a Winter Pageant and there are Christmas carols and nods to other faiths and traditions that is all ok. Don’t get in a twist over the carols or the fact that it is a “Winter” pageant. Since you were a kid in school many families have moved into your community, some of them are Hindi and some are Muslim and a few are other things you haven’t heard of. The school wants to include them all and that is ok. If you just moved here and don’t like the carols grow a thicker skin, this is a plural society and some of us sing carols.
If you are a teacher or a principal and your students say Merry Christmas or sing carols or write poetry or essays or do art work depicting the birth of Christ that is OK. They have the right to express their faith. You have the right to express your faith too, or lack of faith, even if it is different than mine, but you don’t have the right to try to indoctrinate the children in it. That goes just as much if you agree with me as if you don’t.
If you are a Christian business owner, or just one looking to market to Christians it is ok to play carols and say “Merry Christmas”. It is also ok to say “Happy Holidays”, “Happy Hanukkah” or “Good Yule.” “Have a nice day”, is ok by me too. Please feel free to celebrate Christmas or not. If I am in your store and you wish me a good Eid ul-Fitr I will smile and say thank you. Your Holiday, not mine, but that is ok I am not particularly in a rush to freak out over other people exercising their constitutionally guaranteed liberties.
The Christian community who would seek to blackmail stores into “Keeping Christ in Christmas” are not only misguided they are shooting themselves in the foot. You can not force someone to faith. If they don’t believe it they might say it to placate their Christian Christmas shoppers, but is that really the change we want? By boycotting stores who sing out “Happy Holidays” we are only doing that which we should fear most. We are telling others how they must worship, what their faith should be. We are infringing on religious liberty. The time may come where mainstream Christianity is a definite minority, in some places this is reality. Caution should be our watchword when it comes to what we view as acceptable when it comes to commerce and religion.
If you are in a store in December and you had to walk 100m across the parking lot in the sleet only to find the item you wanted sold out, thank the floor clerk when they let you know they have none in the back storage. When you get in line and the line is long, relax, hum a little tune, maybe even a Christmas Carol. Let the old lady with the huge package ahead of you in line. Don’t stress out if people behind you are beckoned to the newly opened register. When the checkout clerk says “Good Yule” smile and say “Marry Christmas” and give her a candy-cane or at least a smile and don’t forget to drop a few coins in the Salvation Army bucket. Write your letters to Santa or if it is to the store’s headquarters say something nice about the staff, working retail in December is hard.
And last but not least. Have a Merry Christmas.