Every year around this time, the United States is subject to increasingly acrimonious “Christmas wars,” over whether the time of year should be called Christmas as it used to be, or a more generic “holidays.” Canada has not escaped these battles, but they seem to be a much smaller issue there, which I think is a very good thing.
Many people in the United States, of course, do not celebrate Christmas. Most often, such people are Jews, and perhaps sometimes Muslims and followers of Asian traditions. It is the rare atheist or agnostic who refuses to celebrate Christmas – a fact I find somewhat telling. In my own Canadian childhood I found that refusal somewhat bizarre. My family never went to church, my parents never believed or taught any ideas they recognized as Christian; but we nevertheless celebrated Christmas, as North Americans in North America, and nobody thought that was weird. When we went to India we always celebrated Diwali and Holi without thinking of ourselves as Hindus, and nobody seemed to think that was weird either.
The first people to challenge my non-Christian celebration of Christmas were Jewish friends during my undergrad days at McGill. “The word is Christ-mass,” they would say. “It doesn’t make sense to celebrate that if you’re not Christian.” The argument didn’t ring true with me then, and still doesn’t. First there’s the point that Christmas in the West was not Christian to begin with: the date of Christmas was set in the fourth century to follow the feast of the Roman sun deity, and the traditions of pagan Saturnalia became part of typical European Christian celebrations. But even if we think of Christmas’s origins as Christian, the festival of Christmas has become part of North American life, like Thanksgiving. Should I avoid celebrating Hallowe’en because I’m not a Celtic pagan?
I respect the desire of modern Jews to retain their status and identity as a separate, unassimilated people. For them the non-celebration of Christmas could be seen as a deliberate self-denial for the sake of preserving distinctness; modern Jews often view the kosher laws the same way. What makes us who we are is that we don’t eat pork, we don’t celebrate Christmas. (I’ve heard it said that such an oppositional conception of identity is weak and limiting, but I do personally feel sympathetic to it, coming from a place that defines itself above all in terms of not being American.) And I respect the attempt to honour that self-denial by saying “happy holidays” rather than “merry Christmas.”
I’m less sympathetic to the idea that one is obliged to say “happy holidays” to avoid offence, that there’s something wrong with saying “merry Christmas” to people whose background you’re not sure of. Oppositional identity has consequences, including negative ones. Because Canadians are determined to be a separate people with a separate state, we didn’t get to vote for John Kerry in 2004, though our votes would have tipped the election to him; and we face many difficulties trying to find paid work in the United States. We have chosen in important ways to avoid the North American mainstream, and that choice has consequences. If one doesn’t celebrate the mainstream celebrations where one lives, one shouldn’t feel insulted when others assume that mainstream as the norm. If a North American restaurant has its employees say “Merry Christmas,” that’s no more an insult to Jews and Muslims than if it puts bacon on the menu.