‘Tis the season. The weather is turning colder, the colored lights are going up, family gatherings are being planned—and right on cue, one of the routine culture war battles is heating up. It is time to signal your allegiance; will you say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas”? In honor of the newborn Prince of Peace, maybe we should stop fighting and examine this question more carefully.

Both positions in this debate have a certain amount of surface plausibility. The argument for saying “Happy Holidays” is grounded in the desire to avoid giving offense. The United States is now a multicultural country, and we shouldn’t just assume that other people will be celebrating Christmas. “Happy Holidays” is inclusive enough to cover any possible scenario, while still being friendly. The argument for saying “Merry Christmas,” by contrast, is grounded in the desire to maintain public expressions of Christian culture. After all, around 90% of Americans still celebrate Christmas, even if less than half of them see it as a primarily religious holiday. According to conservative Christians, saying “Merry Christmas” is a great way to give a Christian witness and remind others of “the reason behind the season.”

While these positions seem very different, they are actually quite similar. They are both lacking in true charity because they both accept our individualistic, atomized culture as a given. “Happy Holidays” is simply a way to paper over this individualism with a veneer of politeness. It is “inclusive,” but only because it is vague. We can blithely wish strangers “Happy Holidays” without having to know anything about their lives; it avoids the awkwardness of actually experiencing the diversity of those around us by creating a bland, artificial unity. It is telling that the corporate world has enthusiastically embraced the term “Happy Holidays”; it fits perfectly into the shallow world of marketing and consumerism, into the flattening of all culture and community into one enormous shopping spree.

Using “Merry Christmas” as a way to display our own religious convictions is similarly lacking in genuine concern for other people. Rather than showing any kind of interest in their lives, such an activistic outlook sees others merely as an opportunity to proclaim our own identity. Sure, it would be wonderful if everyone was celebrating Christmas together, but that’s not the case in today’s world. The fact of the matter, whether we like it or not, is that many people are not celebrating Christmas, or are not celebrating it as a religious feast. In our modern context, routinely saying “Merry Christmas” is rather like offering birthday greetings to random strangers; it might not be their birthday! Pointedly saying “Merry Christmas” in response to “Happy Holidays” might be a good way of signaling one’s own belief, but is not an effective way of spreading the Faith. If anything, it makes Christians come off as insensitive or out of touch. And isn’t there something problematic about using a Christmas greeting as a weapon or an opportunity for publicity?

Instead of ideologically driven culture wars or bland inclusivity, we need to cultivate an attitude of authentic love. As Christians, we are each called to show the love of Christ to the world. The love of Christ is personal; Jesus loves us not as an indeterminate mass or as an ideological abstraction, but as unique individuals. To express this personal love, we need to become interested in others; in short, we need to practice “dialogue” and create a real meeting of minds and hearts.

While we might think of dialogue as something only practiced in formal ecclesiastical meetings or ecumenical gatherings or political discussions, it is actually something much deeper and more primal. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis described dialogue as, “Approaching, speaking, listening, looking at, coming to know and understand one another, and [finding] common ground.” He went on to say that while disagreement and conflict tend to get more attention, patient and unheralded dialogue is what keeps families and communities together.

All this might seem like a lot to expect from a casual interaction with a grocery store worker or a neighbor. But we should remember the story of the widow’s mite; God calls us to do small things with great love. There’s no better time to start than right now, as we prepare for Christmas. Despite our society’s polarization and individualism, and despite the decline of religious faith, the Christmas season still does represent something that is shared by a majority of our neighbors; tenuous as this connection may be, it represents an opportunity to build something more significant and achieve the common ground that Pope Francis describes.

Doing so will take imagination, however. Saying “Happy Holidays” does not represent such a meeting of minds, because it communicates nothing whatsoever. On the other hand, merely saying “Merry Christmas” is a form of one-sided communication; it does not help us to know or understand the person we are addressing.

Instead, it would be better to start with an open-ended question that expresses a true interest in the other person. You might ask, “will you be celebrating Christmas?” If the answer is yes, then Christmas wishes are in order, and perhaps a conversation about Christmas plans. If the answer is no, you could still ask if the other person will be taking any time off work or doing anything special for New Year’s.

If somebody wishes you Happy Holidays, perhaps you could respond by saying, “Thank you! I’m planning to celebrate Christmas with my family in Kansas (or “I’m planning to attend Midnight Mass at St. Dominic’s,” or “I’m planning to be haunted by three spirits,” or whatever it is that you intend to do.) “What are your plans?”

Of course, such attempts at genuine conversation might get you weird looks. On the other hand, you might be surprised at how much you learn about those around you. During his homily in Madison Square Garden, Pope Francis said that Jesus sent his disciples to meet others where they really are, rather than where they should be. He went on to say that in Jesus God himself became “God with us,” involved in our lives and our homes. At Christmas, we commemorate the humility of Jesus Christ, who came in the form of a little child. We can imitate his humility by meeting our neighbors where they are and really listening to them. This year, let’s truly “keep Christ in Christmas” by banishing from our hearts all the hatred, ideology, and divisions that separate us from one another.

Image: Adobe Stock. By Roman Milert.

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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

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