You don’t say Happy Birthday to others when it’s your birthday. You wish them a Happy Birthday when the birthday is theirs. And you don’t tell someone Happy Anniversary on the date of your own wedding anniversary, unless the person you’re saying it to happens to be your spouse.

I bring this up with the hope of diffusing what I see as a dangerous and ugly holiday tradition. And we’ve had plenty of those over the years. The most recent one is the alarming Black Friday phenomenon in which stores are opening earlier and earlier for the start of the holiday shopping season, and more and more people are getting injured – and sometimes killed – in the mob mentality that results.

Related to this, though less physically harmful, is the commercialization that started decades ago and left many of us lamenting not only how early stores start putting up their Christmas displays, but how the true meaning of Christmas has gotten lost in the process.

In recent years we’ve seen lawsuits and protests over Nativity scenes and Christmas carols, on the grounds that they violate the Constitutional separation of church and state, or that they force Christian beliefs and symbols on non-Christians. And this, in turn, has generated a vocal and sometimes vicious diatribe against use of the phrase, “Happy Holidays.”

That’s the one that concerns me now.

In the past few years, I’ve received a number of forwarded group emails from people angrily rallying against anyone saying “Happy Holidays,” claiming it’s a watered-down, whitewashed, politically-correct and morally offensive version of “Merry Christmas.” And just last weekend, while I was out of town for Thanksgiving, I read a newspaper column in which the columnist stated that we should welcome and respect each other’s differences, and then suddenly went off on a rant about how rude and insulting the phrase “Happy Holidays” is.

She went on to say that if someone who was Jewish wished her a Happy Hanukkah, she would welcome it as an expression of the other person’s faith, and that the Jewish person should feel the same way when told “Merry Christmas.”

But isn’t that like wishing someone a Happy Birthday on YOUR birthday? Wouldn’t it make more sense, and be more respectful, for her to wish the Jewish person a Happy Hanukkah, and for that person to wish her a Merry Christmas? And if they don’t know each other well enough to do that, or don’t care to, what’s wrong with saying “Happy Holidays?”

When I buy my Christmas cards every year, I deliberately buy an assortment that includes some religious ones and some generic ones. I also buy several “Happy Hanukkah” cards.

I send religious cards to the people I know to be very religious, and more general holiday greetings to people whose religious beliefs or backgrounds I don’t know. For that matter, I also send the cards that depict children – or multiple stockings hanging on the mantel – to families with young children, and cards that have a peaceful, comforting tone to those whom I know have suffered a loss or disappointment during the year. I don’t sit down and hand-select each and every card this way – if I did, it would take me all year to address them – but I do try to tailor the greeting to the recipient. And the same goes when I tell them, in writing or in person, Merry Christmas. Or Happy Hanukkah. Or any other greeting that is meaningful to them.

And when I tell them “Happy Holidays,” it doesn’t mean I’m being politically correct, or morally weak. I’m not caving in, selling out, or watering down my beliefs. Instead I am wishing them joy throughout the season, no matter which religious beliefs they hold, no matter which holidays they celebrate, and no matter which traditions are meaningful to them. I say it as an acknowledgment of the differences between us, and a celebration of all that we have in common.

Whatever words you use or hear in the coming weeks, I hope they will be both given and received with joy, with respect, and with sincere good wishes for celebrating whatever beliefs and traditions each of us holds dear.

And if you happen to be celebrating a birthday or anniversary soon, I wish you a happy one.

The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on December 1, 2011.
© Betty Liedtke, 2011