Chicago Catholics, how was your Christmas? I had the unique experience of going to two Christmas services within a span of 9 hours this year. First, I attended the 10 p.m. Divine Liturgy (which lasted until Midnight) at Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen, IL. Secondly, I attended the 9 a.m. Christmas morning Mass at St. Bernadette’s Catholic Church in Evergreen Park, IL. While having a “Midnight Mass” on Christmas is a long standing tradition in Christianity, more and more parishes are opting to move the service to 10 p.m. so people can get home earlier and get some rest in anticipation for Christmas morning. The Pope himself presided over a 10 p.m. “Midnight Mass” at the Vatican this year.
Sadly, many of our Catholic counterparts in the Middle East were unable to celebrate Mass on Christmas Eve because of security concerns. In Iraq, Chaldean (Iraqi) Catholic officials even announced they were cancelling all traditional Christmas Eve midnight Masses because of the risk. It’s unfortunate than although we take the freedom to say “Merry Christmas” in public for granted, many Catholics around the world risk death or imprisonment just for uttering those same words. “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” is a wonderful way to spread cheer to your neighbors. What I have noticed in the Chicago area is this traditional phrase is increasingly being replaced with the generic “Happy Holidays” greeting year after year. Some welcome this change, and even some Jewish friends of mine said they were annoyed at hearing people in public constantly wish them “Merry Christmas” when they don’t celebrate the holiday. Those of you on my Facebook page have probably heard me address this topic throughout the week. Should we say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” to strangers? Here are my thoughts.
The most common argument for replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” is that many Americans do not celebrate Christmas. However, a recent study found that it is still a widely celebrated American tradition. While fewer than 80% of Americans are Christian, a 2011 Rasmussen report found that 88% of Americans celebrate Christmas. (81% of the celebrants saying they observe it as a religious holiday, and 16% of the celebrants saying they observe it as a secular holiday). Is it not surprisingly that many non-Christians celebrate Christmas as well. Even in Japan – where only 1% of the population is Christian – the Christmas season is widely promoted). To be more “inclusive”, many have suggested that the greeting be extended to “Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah” in public. This includes the roughly 2% of America’s population that is Jewish, but still leaves many other religious beliefs including Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, various other faiths, and of course agnostics and atheists that do not celebrate Christmas. Hence, retailers now want to use the phrase “Happy Holidays” and refer to all Christmas items as “holiday” items (“Holiday trees/holiday wreaths/holiday bows/holiday punch/holiday treats/holiday movies/etc.”), as this “includes everyone” and thus increases their profit margin — presumably all Americans like to celebrate “holidays” in general.
I’ve been pretty clear about my position on all this. I’m sorry if the phrase “Merry Christmas” offends people, but I’m offended if you want to censor my religious festival from public display and replace it with a generic “holiday greeting”. Those who want to remove the greeting “Merry Christmas” from public life state that the United States is “multicultural” and thus needs to reach out to everyone. While it’s true that we do have enormous diversity in the United States and many cultures, so do many other nations. In fact, when it comes to celebrating religious holidays, it is ironic that us “multicultural” Americans celebrate Christmas by a much bigger margin than the percentage of Israelis who celebrate Passover in a “Jewish state”. Studies have shown Israeli citizens are roughly 76% Jewish, 17% Muslim, 2% Christian, 1.7% Druze, and 4% atheist, agnostic, and other faiths. I have never seen non-Jewish families observe Jewish religious holidays like Shavuot, so even if we presume that EVERY Jew is Israel is observant and practices their faith (unlikely), that would mean that nearly a quarter of Israeli citizens do NOT celebrate Jewish holidays.
The question I posed to my Jewish friends is that if the United States should replace the word “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” in public so they can be “inclusive” towards 12% of Americans, should Israelis stop mentioning the word “Passover” in public and instead wish everyone “Happy spring season” so it will cover the other 25% of their population? I haven’t seen a good answer to that one. Usually the response of “Happy Holidays” advocates is to simply change the subject and say “This is not about Israel, this is about America” I suspect the reason why is they really wouldn’t want to see Israel water down its rich cultural traditions and avoid Passover and Hanukkah celebrations in public, in favor of generic “winter holiday” and “spring festivity” displays and greetings. Yet this is exactly what they are asking the United States to do. A group of Muslims made a similar “do as we say, not as we do” argument that Catholic universities in America needed to censor Catholic imagery be more “inclusive” towards Muslims, even though no Muslim university in the Middle East has such overtures to Catholics.
This is not to say that I am against promoting or celebrating OTHER religious traditions in public. Just I have no problem with the phrase “Merry Christmas to all”, I welcome the phrase “Happy Hanukkah to all”. If I was invited to a religious celebration of another faith, I would certainly accept the invitation. I believe it’s great to observe and learn about other traditions and celebrations, even if you don’t believe in them. Politicians are especially known for doing this, generally as attempt to pander to various constituencies in order to get more votes. Here is one area where Israel can teach Catholics much about outreach to people of other faiths. Recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued his annual Christmas greeting to Israeli Christians and to Christians abroad. I highly recommend listening to his speech, I found it to be very warm and sincere in that he noted that he appreciated their contribution to Israel’s society and he recommended some wonderful historic sites in Israel where Jesus lived that would be of interest to Christians. Netanyahu’s approach to religious diversity was far better than if he had tried something tacky like doing a photo-op wearing a red Santa cap or released a video of himself decorating Christmas trees with candy canes at the Prime Minister’s residence. It is far more sincere than President Obama putting up a “Hanukkah display” at the White House for a holiday he doesn’t believe in (and certainly wouldn’t be observing it he weren’t trying to get votes) lighting all the candles on a single day long before the actual “Hanukkah” event begins on the Jewish calendar, and then jettisoning off to Hawaii when his constituents are actually celebrating religious holidays.
It’s unfortunate that using the phrase “Merry Christmas to all” in public DOES bother some people. As one my friends said, “If another person bestows happiness & good will for ANY reason, it should be received in the spirit in which it was given”. Some have tried to “turn the tables” by wishing Christians a “Happy Hanukkah”, only to find that the Christians simply smiled and said “thank you” rather than take offense. It reminds me of a similar incident in America where a predominantly Native American Indian college in Colorado tried to get “revenge” on predominantly white colleges with Indian mascots by naming their team “The Fightin’ Whities” , featuring a 1950s-style caricature of a middle-aged white guy – and the slogan “Every thang’s gonna be all white!” Rather than feel insulted, whites thought the mascot was “cute” and the plan to “make them feel how we feel” backfired on the college when the team’s popularity skyrocketed (redesigning the white mascot to be a barefoot hillbilly didn’t help either) … people still bought the merchandise like hotcakes and the team sold enough shirts that they were eventually able to endow a sizeable scholarship fund for the American Indian students at UNC.
Christians living in Israel are probably not upset to see a major focus on the Jewish holidays of Passover, Shavuot, Rosh, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Purim and Hanukkah in their country, with comparably little mention of St. Patrick’s Day, St. Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Advent, Lent, and the Epiphany in a country that is over 75% Jewish and only 2% Christian. Perhaps they understand that is not an intended slight against them, but rather that the country is heavily Jewish and thus focuses much of its traditions on that cultural heritage. In fact, American Jews who complain about being “mistaken for Christians” when 88% of Americans celebrate Christmas would probably find that such cases of mistaken identity would be even more common if any Chicago area Catholic moved to Israel. Even among Israel’s Christian population, the vast majority is Eastern Orthodox Christians of Arabian ethnicity, and the remainder usually is “born again” evangelical Protestants preaching about the bible in the holy land. Catholics of European and Latin American ancestry are extremely rare in Israel – a Chicago Catholic with a Polish last name would be almost certainly be mistaken for Jewish and wished a “Happy Hanukkah” in public instead of “Merry Christmas” if they relocated to Israel. And you know what? That’s okay.
Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth deface.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy
— “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, a traditional Christmas Carol