Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays?

Last week, the Toronto Star asked the question “Is it OK to say Merry Christmas?” Two writers provided their opinions – one for and one against – and online readers had the opportunity to weigh in by responding to the same question with either “Yes, no one is or should be offended by people celebrating such a common holiday” or “No, it can make people feel excluded and erase the importance and visibility of other holidays.”

Much to my surprise, when I checked the responses on December 19, I saw that 95% of them were “yes.”

Christmas and capitalism

When I was a kid, Christmas occupied our attention for a relatively short period of time. Kids scoured the Eaton’s catalogue for a couple of weeks in early December, decorations appeared around the same time, and most people had two days off, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, before heading back to work until New Year’s Day.

That has certainly changed: now, the capitalist spending spree of Christmas is thrust upon us on November 1st, as soon as store shelves have been cleared of their Hallowe’en merchandise, and it continues with enthusiasm until the last penny has been wrung out of us at Boxing Day sales. We can expect to hear seasonal music in stores by mid-November. An increasing number of workplaces close down for the week between December 25 and January 2, and the school break has crept up to two weeks (and maybe a bit longer if the dates fall well).


Amid the glitter and sparkle of consumerist Christmas, as Canada has become more diverse, so have our seasonal expressions at this time of year. In many communities, school events are now called winter or holiday rather than Christmas concerts. Hanukkah, Kwanza and Indigenous songs and stories are often integrated among the Christian and non-religious offerings. Greeting cards increasingly say “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings.”

The fact remains, however, that for many people – active Christians or not – December is all about Christmas.

For some, this feels warm and comfortable; for others, exclusionary. Language is but one of the reasons people may feel excluded at this time of year — capitalism has made this season one that is far out of the reach of many in our communities, for instance – but it is a significant reason.

Yes or no?

As Sadie-Rae Werner, who took the “no” position in the Star debate, wrote:

“For my entire life, I have walked into stores and restaurants from late November to the end of December and been greeted by the phrase “Merry Christmas.” I have been met by open disregard and, at times, disdain when I tell peers, teammates, strangers and even teachers that I don’t celebrate Christmas. . . Every time I go into an establishment and someone wishes me “Merry Christmas” I get a little sad [because] people still fail to recognize any winter holiday other than Christmas; they fail to account for me, and so many people like me, who joyfully celebrate something else.”

Taking the “yes” position, Amira Elghawaby makes the argument that:

“I’m for saying “Merry Christmas” precisely because I believe so wholeheartedly in promoting inclusive communities. . . Multiculturalism is about embracing our diversity; not making it invisible. That includes Christian practice.”

I am more compelled by Werner’s argument than by Eghawaby’s. In a society that operates largely within a Judeo-Christian framework, I don’t see how saying “Merry Christmas” encourages inclusivity. It is just one more demonstration of which religion/culture holds the upper hand.

Admittedly, I am not a Christian (or an adherent to any other organized religion), but it seems to me that saying “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” allows the receiver of my greetings to feel part of whatever celebrations they may engage in at no cost to me or my beliefs.

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