Saturday, December 15, 2012

Happy Christmas, or Happy Holidays?

I am not obsessed with political correctness. In fact, I think it is often ridiculous, as most of us do – fortunately it provides good comedy fodder. Nevertheless, it is important to be somewhat sensitive when we are using language. I have spoken about language frequently in this blog. Language is something we take completely for granted; and, perhaps more foolishly, we assume that the person we are addressing actually understands what we are saying. We assume that they use a particular word in the same way that we use a particular word. I suspect this is rarely the case. Words carry meanings and connotations for each of us as individuals, based on our history, that others probably don’t share. There is an intensely personal dimension to words, beyond any shared superficial meaning. I am very conscious of this even as I write. I am forever astonished that we manage to communicate at all; and not at all surprised by the enormous communication breakdowns that occur only too frequently, whether it be in interpersonal or international relations.

There are particular sensitivities around words that mean a great deal to us personally, or to the culture with which we identify. Unfortunately, among these words are “Happy Christmas”. Some people, who do not have a Christian background, may be offended if these words are addressed to them. I remember, when I was working as a chaplain in a psychiatric hospital, that one year I distributed Christmas cards to the staff. One staff member became quite angry, because, as a Jehovah’s Witness, they did not celebrate Christmas. I did not know that the person was a Jehovah’s Witness, nor, in fact that JWs did not celebrate Christmas. They could have perhaps reacted differently – thanking me, but informing me of the fact rather than becoming angry. There could have developed some mutual dialogue and understanding.

Others become upset when they are advised to use expressions such as "Happy Holidays", rather than "Happy Christmas", sniffing political correctness in this, and reacting accordingly. They perceive this as a threat to their own traditions. Obviously this is one area where political correctness can go completely overboard, and we all tend to react to such excesses. However, people who react against such political correctness in this context often do not harbour any firm Christian convictions themselves. Really, when they say “Happy Christmas” they don’t mean much more than “Happy Holidays” in any case. The holiday just happens to be called “Christmas”. Australia is not, in any meaningful sense, a Christian country. The Christmas season has, for the majority of people, long since lost its religious connotations. Not many people who wish me a Happy Christmas will be attending any kind of Christ Mass. I tend to say “Happy Holidays” in preference, because there is more than one holiday at this time of year, and this term covers everything. It also covers the fact that other people celebrate different things at this time of year, or don’t celebrate anything at all; and, yes, it does show some sensitivity to other peoples’ beliefs and customs. Switzerland has a much stronger and more deeply rooted Christian tradition than Australia; yet “Bonnes Fêtes” is found in the shop windows more often than “Joyeux Noël”, even with Father Christmas and his reindeer in all their glory on display.

I don’t mind if people say Happy Christmas to me, even if I no longer identify with the Christian tradition. Similarly, I don’t particularly mind when Americans wish me a Happy Thanksgiving, even though I obviously don’t celebrate it. Part of me does wish that they could see beyond their own particular cultural blinkers; but I don’t become angry or upset.

We all wear our own particular blinkers. Political correctness, for all its excesses, can serve as a reminder that our way of seeing things is not the only way of seeing things; that we live in a society in which people come from a whole range of cultural and religious backgrounds. I would hope that people from other cultures and with other beliefs are not offended if someone wishes them a Happy Christmas. I would hope they might accept this as a sincere token of well-wishing, and perhaps as the beginning of a meaningful dialogue. Equally, it doesn’t hurt us to be aware that other people have different values and beliefs than our own. We don’t have to surrender our own values or beliefs. But let’s take the time to hear and understand those of others.

So, Happy Holidays, Bonnes Fêtes, to you all.

1 comment:

  1. How about this one Philip. 'Season's greetings' to you and may your trip back to Australia bring you every happiness in the years ahead.