Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays – Are People Really Offended?

By Lauren Yarger
When I made a purchase at a local store yesterday, the clerk wished me happy holidays. I thanked him and wished him the same, but according to news articles and to opponents of political correctness, I suppose I should have been offended.

Store clerks are being instructed to wish "happy holidays" instead of “Merry Christmas” to avoid offending those who might not celebrate that holiday. Some stores have eliminated Christmas music and banned bell-ringing representatives of the Salvation Army from entrances because these reminders that most of us celebrate Christmas apparently can’t be tolerated by those who don’t.

I’m really curious to know how many of these highly offended people really exist. Most Jewish folks I know respond with an unoffended “and Happy Chanukah” when greeted with a “Merry Christmas.” I doubt the numbers of offended atheists are very high, because I used to be a pretty committed and vocal atheist and I can tell you, someone wishing me a merry Christmas wasn’t a threat to my beliefs, nor an infringement upon them.

My atheist family celebrated Christmas, though the religious part about the birth of a savoir didn’t enter in to our festivities. When we were little, we decorated a tree, waited for Santa and –horror of horrors—sang Christmas songs in the school concert. My mother, one of the most committed atheists I ever knew and who would have closed the school down over something like mandatory prayer, came to the concerts and proudly watched as I sang “Winds Through the Olive Trees” and other songs mentioning Jesus and never felt the need to insist the school ban them, because singing them didn’t mean I had to believe them. They simply were tradition. Now schools refuse to include them, and in a way, force Christian children to participate in a celebration of secular holidays. Is this really so different?

When we were older, the holiday was an opportunity to give and receive gifts, enjoy good food and spend time with people we loved. We got the holiday off from school and work (and in one of my school districts with a large Jewish population, we got those holidays off too). I didn’t feel the need to protest and insist that everyone go to school or work on those days just because I didn’t believe in their religious significance.

Sometimes on Christmas, I even attended midnight mass services with friends because it was something they traditionally did (and I suspect attending had more to do with tradition and obligation than with any real desire to worship the Savior). Going to church didn’t threaten my belief system. I didn’t participate in what I considered “brainwashed” rituals of kneeling, crossing one’s self or taking of the bread and cup and actually used the experiences to fuel ammunition for the religious debates I often found myself winning with people who considered themselves Christians.

So if someone wished me a “merry Christmas” back in those days, I would have said “thank you; same to you.” My reaction would not have been one of offense, or one which assumed that by wishing me a merry Christmas what you actually were saying was, “I am wishing you a merry Christmas instead of a happy holiday because I am a jerk and want to try to force my religion on you.”

It’s the “forced” part that would have and did result in protest from this devout atheist. When saying “The Pledge of Allegiance” in school, I always stopped and refused to recite “one nation under God,” because I didn’t believe it was. If I had been called to give testimony in a court of law, I would have refused to place my hand on a bible and to swear to tell the truth “so help me God.” My high school offered a bible course as an English class and I did an independent study rather than take it. Later, a labor union agreement required me to attest to a belief in God. Having these religious things thrust upon me as a matter of normal course offended me as they infringed on my right not to follow Christianity and I took action to avoid them and spoke in favor of changing them.

Someone’s wishing me the happiness of a holiday that I didn’t celebrate for the same reasons they did, however just didn’t get the activist in me riled. Singing Christmas songs or hearing them played in stores during the shopping season didn’t offend me. If the town government decided to play Christmas carols at government meetings, I would have protested, but stores, where the majority of people are Christmas shopping? No. The stores are privately owned and they should be able to decorate and play music as they wish. If some aspect of the shopping experience really offends, you always have the option of not shopping at that store and letting the store owner know why.

So again, I have to wonder just how many people, even if they are die-hard atheists, are so offended by a merry Christmas wish. I can tell you I feel the same amount of offense now, as a Christian, being wished a happy holiday as I did as an atheist being wished a merry Christmas -- none. I assume the person is wishing me the happiness of the season, not that they are actually saying, “I am wishing you a happy holiday instead of a merry Christmas because I don’t believe in Christ and feel my rights will be violated if I say or hear the word Christmas.”

I’ll give the benefit of the doubt, but if that’s really what you mean by “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” then I feel sorry for you. The most important thing to you is not promoting the separation of church and state or your atheist or other-God beliefs. You obviously think our constitution protects you and your beliefs while keeping others from expressing theirs. This attitude of thinking you are right and that you need to protect yourself and others from exposure to contrary beliefs probably is the same argument you use to describe Christians and why you don’t like them. The same tolerance you demand from us is something you should offer yourself when we express our beliefs, and a little Christmas spirit might be just what you need to help you do this.

So to those of you who celebrate Dec. 25 as the birth of our Lord and Savior, Merry Christmas. To My Jewish friends, I wish you happy Chanukah and to those who follow atheism or other religions, I wish you love, happiness and peace this holiday season. And I promise not to be offended when you wish me the same.

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Lauren Yarger, Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

In 2008 she was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater with a Christian perspective for Reflections in the Light (http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/) and is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection. She also is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com

She also reviews books for Publisher's Weekly and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She formerly was Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp, a national theater web site bsed in New York and a reviewer for American Theater Web.

She also served as Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. and worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford and the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.

She is a freelance writer and member of the Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association, The League of Professional Theatre Women and The CT Critics Circle.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger lives with her husband in West Granby, CT and has two adult children.

Copyright Notice

All contents copyright © Lauren Yarger 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013. All rights reserved. For reprint permission, contact masterworkproductions@yahoo.com.

Scripture from THE MESSAGE Copyright 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

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