Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Holidays!

So here I am, coming out of blogging hibernation, to offer once again my unsolicited opinion. But it's Thanksgiving, which officially kicks off the holiday season, and I want to preemptively disagree with a certain cadre of pundits before they launch into their wintertime assault on our collective sense of peace and goodwill.

Because to my mind, that's the most important part of this season, the common thread that ties together all the holidays and celebrations that our diverse country recognizes this time of year: It's the time of year when we focus on gathering with our families and friends; the time when we donate time, goods, food and money to help the people who have less than us; and the time when we imagine a more peaceful world.

But the last decade or so, it's also become the time of year when a few loud-mouths try to stir up trouble, to say, "Peace is nice, but what I really want you to focus on is war - a false war that we've made up, a conflict that doesn't really exist, but a great opportunity for you to feel like a victim and to hate your neighbor!" It's the "War on Christmas" conspiracy theorists, and before they launch into their yearly grinchiness, I have to explain why they are wrong, wrong, wrong.

It's not a war on Christmas. It's free-market capitalism. As conservatives, you shouldn't bemoan it; you should embrace it.

They always trot out lots of anecdotal examples of how the "secular-progressives" are trying to steal Christmas from the good people of America, but at the heart of their thesis is the phrase "happy holidays." They squirm with delightful victimization every time they hear someone at the mall utter that phrase, and they call on their fellow martyrs to save Christmas, Christianity, and perhaps Christ himself by joining in a mass rebuke of that phrase. "Down with 'happy holidays' - up with 'MERRY CHRISTMAS'!"

But my take on the rise of "happy holidays" - if its use really has increased as much as these pundits claim - is that it's a side effect of the free-market capitalism that our country is based on. If private companies recognize the religious and cultural diversity that defines their customer base, and if they recognize that wishes of good cheer and holiday salutations add to a positive shopping experience and create repeat customers, and then they recognize that a more generic phrase like "happy holidays" casts a wider net and manages to cover all their customers - not just the Christian ones - then that's just good business. That's capitalism.

It's not like any governments have been banning the phrase "merry Christmas." It's not that a junta of non-Christians has overtaken all of our retailers and decided to eradicate Christmas from our culture. It's no different from fast-food chains setting protocol that their drive-through operators say, "Would you like to try a Frostee?" instead of "Is that everything?" at the end of a customer's order. It doesn't symbolize a conspiracy to give America one giant cold headache; it just reflects the idea that, by asking everyone that same question, you're likely to sell a few more Frostees and pull in a few more bucks.

And by calling on all their employees to say, "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas," retailers aren't calling on their employees to denounce their belief in Jesus as the savior of mankind and to start a jihad against the faithful; they're simply realizing that by using the more generic phrase, they're more likely to reap the benefits of spreading holiday cheer among their Christian, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, Sikh, Buddhist, pagan and other customers equally, bumping the repeat customer rate up by a percentage point or two and boosting the bottom line. With "happy holidays," it's really only the Jehovah's Witnesses they're alienating.

Back to those pundits and the angry masses they stir up. These people aren't truly afraid that their children's children will live in a world without Christmas. What they're upset about, and why it's so easy to fuel this idea of a war on Christmas, is what "happy holidays" represents. Because they do recognize that it's a result of the free market, and it terrifies them that they are part of an increasingly diverse marketplace. They long for the days when "merry Christmas" was sufficient because everyone was Christian. Of course, in America there never were any such days, but the across-the-board use of "merry Christmas" had the built-in assumption that white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were the "norm," which meant WASPs were the undisputed rulers of the culture and of the country.

That's the power of words: It's not so much what they mean, but the assumptions they embody that provide their greatest effect. And the move in the free market away from "merry Christmas" toward "happy holidays" represents the increasing assumption that the American dream is working, that someone who celebrates something other than Christmas this season is still a valuable and valued demographic. And in a capitalist society, being a target customer means you've made it as part of our culture. And that's a good thing.

And one more thought: Even if you don't celebrate Christmas, or Kwanzaa, or Hanukkah, or Eid (which of course isn't always a winter holiday), or any other religious or cultural holiday this time of year, the traditional "holiday season" here in America is bookended by Thanksgiving and New Year's, which are by and large secular, national holidays that celebrate two things we all share in common: an appreciation for the people and things in our past and present that have made us who we are to day, and an optimism for a prosperous and peaceful year to come. So if nothing else, next time someone at Target wishes you "happy holidays," don't assume they're belittling your love of Jesus; assume they are joining you in celebrating the common ground of thankfulness and hope.

Happy holidays!