Merry Christmas Vs. Happy Holidays
Updated: Jul 8, 2021
My team and I were discussing holiday greetings this past week. Every year we send out an office Christmas Card to our clients, partners, and company friends. This is the first year it said “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” Some people in my office seemed to be a little upset about that. They say that Christmas is getting lost in an effort to act more “PC” (politically correct).
We have a pretty casual office environment and this topic came up as more of a “friendly debate” rather than a real office issue. But I think there may be underlying importance to this subject as it relates to workplace inclusion and respect. I was raised Christian, but my mother is Jewish so I thought the change in this year's card was rather nice.
Do you think this is a topic we should openly discuss at work? If so, do you have any advice on how I can help my teammates see that holiday greetings are about more than just “acting PC”?
It’s great that you and your colleagues were able to have a “friendly debate” about this topic, though it sounds as if, for some colleagues, the emotions ran deep. The issue of “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays” can feel like a competition, but I think at the core, it’s really about being seen and respected.
Let’s look at this first from the person who wants to say or hear Happy Holidays. That person may be of a non-Christian religion, maybe atheist, or maybe agnostic. Particularly if the person saying it is someone who celebrates Christmas, saying Happy Holidays to others is a way to be respectful to others who don’t celebrate. To show that you don’t presume that they are “like you” in this way. To show that you see them as individuals. In a work setting, it may be that people don’t talk about their religious beliefs, and so it’s hard to know what to say about the holiday season that is most respectful.
Now let’s look at this from the person who celebrates Christmas. That person also wants to be respected and seen, and so saying people saying Happy Holidays rather than Merry Christmas might feel disrespectful. That person may feel unseen.
Ultimately, it’s a question of how well you know the other person’s religious observances (or the other person knows yours). If I know that you are Hindu and celebrate Diwali, it would be respectful for me to say “Happy Diwali.” If I know that you are an atheist, and I want to be respectful, I might say “Seasons Greetings.” If I know that you are Jewish and want to be respectful, I might say “Happy Hanukkah.” If I know that you celebrate Christmas and want to be respectful, I might say “Merry Christmas.” But if I don’t know what/whether you celebrate, or I’m not sure, or I’m not sure about other people in your household and I want to be respectful, I’d say “Happy Holidays.” For many people, the “safest” thing is to say Happy Holidays or Seasons Greetings, since we can never be 100% sure—even if people talk about celebrating Christmas—whether they are also celebrating other holidays.
If you think your colleagues can have a useful discussion about mutual respect and the issues involved, then it may make sense to raise it, speaking only from your own perspective and being genuinely curious about their perspective. See my answers to Questions #9 and #10 about the election for suggestion’s about how to talk about such “hard” topics at work.
My take-home message is to recognize that we all want to be respected and acknowledged, and this time of year it can be complicated. If people communicate season’s greetings in a way that doesn’t match you, you can (kindly) let them know what you (don’t) celebrate, or just let it go and recognize that they are trying to convey good wishes.
Disclaimer: This question and response is provided for informational purposes only, and you should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this content. It is strongly recommended that you immediately seek legal or other professional advice if you believe you are experiencing a problem requiring professional assistance. Robin Rosenberg and Live in Their World, Inc. disclaim all liability for actions you take or fail to take based on Dear Robin content.