You Can’t Say ‘Merry Christmas’ Anymore!

I recently read that airport immigration officials in the Philippines have been ordered not to say “Merry Christmas” to arriving passengers; a warm smile and efficient service will do. The prohibition was put in place not because it is politically incorrect but because tourists might construe such a greeting as solicitation for a bribe, tip or cash.

The Associated Press writes, “it is a tradition in the Philippines for children to offer Christmas wishes to solicit gifts from godparents and relatives. But the practice has been hijacked by corrupt officials who sometimes use it as code for extortion requests.”

Is this just another example of the exploitation of the increasingly secular Christmas celebration? Controversy over holiday greetings seems to rear it’s ugly head every year. Once upon a time, Christmas was a season of goodwill and good cheer for all. In the last few years, it has been seen as an offence!

On one side are the politically correct who think that the expression “Merry Christmas” is too exclusionary. They believe we should not say “Merry Christmas” because it might offend those of different faiths, like Muslims or Jews or Hindus. We are called upon to say “Happy holiday” or “Season’s greetings”.

On the other side are the traditional Christians who perceive that the politically correct are attacking their religious beliefs and the customs their country was built on. To them, it is an attempt to de-Christianize society and the sacred traditions they hold dear.

Many workplaces are insisting that employees say “Happy holiday” or “Season’s greetings” to promote intercultural respect and inclusiveness, and not to offend clients and other co-workers. With the well-intentioned interest of recognizing difference and wanting to be respectful of that difference, certain organizations have angered and touched a nerve for a lot of people.

This You Tube video is a great parody of Christmas banned in the workplace.

Human rights are about recognizing and accommodating differences without discriminating. It is true that not everyone in our multicultural society celebrates Christmas; and it is important to acknowledge that. In the workplace context, this acknowledgment must be part of a broader, clearly communicated strategy and written policy to promote a respectful, inclusive culture, which should clearly not exclude a celebration of Christmas, if appropriate. If it is not recognized, an employer risks promoting divisiveness and alienation rather than inclusion and acceptance.

My point was clearly expressed in a recent Financial Post article by Sandeep Tatla, a human rights lawyer:

Sadly, with all this political correctness, Canadians have missed the real lessons and some have grown resentful. That lesson is one of recognizing and appreciating we are not all culturally and religiously the same; recognizing that some of us do not celebrate Christmas while some of us do. Be cautious; don’t blindly wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Be open to learning about your colleagues religious and cultural backgrounds and celebrate and honour those differences. Including continuing to honour Christmas.

I’m not saying figuring out who to wish Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays to is an easy task. Nor, is celebrating all differences. It requires some effort and balancing on the part of everyone. It takes time to talk to colleagues and learn of their differences. You may even make some mistakes along the way, but mistakes are all part of the journey.

Celebrating all differences, including the difference of the majority is important to fostering a healthy inclusive work environment. So celebrate Christmas, but also celebrate all the other wonderful holy days and celebrations. Just as you may have wished your co-worker happy Diwali last month and shared in a sweet treat, they too should be able to wish you Merry Christmas while enjoying some eggnog.

Sometimes in our efforts to accommodate, we push too far, and we forget the essential reason for accommodation: inclusion, meaning acceptance of all, and not at the expense of some. Some might argue that Christians have had their time to dominate the season, and it is their time to give way. Only then can there be room for others to celebrate (or not celebrate) as they choose. And there’s probably a bit of truth to that. Others might argue that Christmas is not really a religious holiday any more—it now refers to the holiday season generally—so saying “Merry Christmas” is essentially the same as saying “Season’s greetings” or “Happy holidays”. In some ways I sympathize with this view: I mean, is it really offensive to greet a non-Christian with “Merry Christmas”? But I don’t know what it’s like to be part of a religious minority, so I can’t really say.

In any case, it’s important that we have this discussion—so much the better if we can have it without getting upset at one another over who is saying what and why. If we expect to live in the same communities and work at the same organizations, we must learn to express our feelings and talk about our beliefs and cultures rather than taking offence, letting our frustrations build up and reacting with attempts to stifle others’—any individual’s or group’s—self-expression (so long as that expression is not hateful). (Then there are some who will say they don’t want to discuss religion at work, because they don’t believe any good can come of it.)

As for the Philippines, well, I guess I should have known this, but I’ve now learned that the country is 90 percent Christian, and I wonder how worried its government and people are about accommodating different religions. It turns out the country has seen many bouts of violent Christian-Muslim conflict, so perhaps the government should be more concerned about accommodation and inclusion than questionable motives behind a simple greeting. But then again, maybe officials using “Merry Christmas” as a signal for a bribe is an important indicator that, like in many other majority-Christian nations, Christmas is losing its religiousness in the Philippines. I think that too is a question for another day.

What do you think? Do you cringe when you hear someone say “Merry Christmas”? Do you tune it out? Do you and your colleagues or neighbours ever discuss your beliefs or traditions? Have you made an effort to reach out to a neighbour or co-worker from a different cultural or religious background? Do you say “Merry Christmas” in blissful or wilful ignorance? Do you prefer “Bah, humbug”? Is religion just too controversial a subject to discuss at with co-workers? Should we all accept that Christmas has multiple meanings, and maybe there’s a spot within one of those meanings for everyone?


  1. In my opinion, the “war on Christmas” is an utter hoax, developed by mostly the right-wing talk-radio media and their television friends (for example, Fox News Channel host John Gibson)to whip up outrage. As one example of the truth behind the “they’re banning Christmas,” examine this 2006 Guardian article.

    The media report from the Phillippines (if accurate) to me represents nothing more than a specific misuse of an innocuous expression.

  2. Great discussion. I like the practice some people have on the social networks (Facebook and Twitter for example) of saying something like “Happy Chanukah to my friends who celebrate.” I try to learn as much as I can about the holidays of others so that I can at least provide the appropriate greeting. So, the more that people can share stories about their own traditions to educate the rest of us the better.

    One thing I learned last year which surprised me is that not all Canadians observe Thanksgiving. I have always thought of it as a secular holiday, but some see it as having Christian ties and opt out. I learned that after wishing a friend a happy Thanksgiving weekend. She fortunately was patient in explaining this to me.

    I love that we have vehicles now to share our thinking (and celebratory mood) more widely.

  3. Thanksgiving? Good gracious. Canadian Thanksgiving is a purely secular holiday. I can see people opting out because they’re vegans and belong to a pro-turkey group. But I suspect that Connie’s acquaintances were confusing our thanksgiving with the U.S. celebration of the fundamentalist pilgrims.

    It may be that atheists would object, because the notion of thanking requires someone or something to thank. But in such a case, I think that thanking a farmer would be a fine substitute. Thanksgiving day is simply one of the many harvest festivals around the world.

    Patient explanations are often wrong explanations.

  4. Greetings:

    Well the Chilliwack BC School Board decided to call the December school break the “Christmas Holidays” and they got slammed by their Teachers Association and Parent Advisory Council:

    Before the end of the meeting, the board was criticized for its decision by both Chilliwack Teachers’ Association president Katharin Midzain and District Parent Advisory Council president Kirsten Brandreth.

    “I feel that we are going backward versus forwards,” Ms. Brandreth said.

    “You’re recognizing that people get a couple of weeks off for the birth of Christ, and I think that we have to be very sensitive that within our community there are many other beliefs … so I feel that it has been a very insensitive decision.”

    I personally like what Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg stated in “An Orthodox rabbi’s Christmas sermon”

    In one generation we have gone from fears of pogroms emanating from the Church to a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to the prince of the Church. The enemies of Judaism and Christianity are no longer each other. We both share common enemies — atheism, materialism, warfare, poverty, bigotry and ignorance, and tragically, to some degree, Islam. And the goals and messianic dreams of Judaism and Christianity are shared in common as well — justice, brotherhood, love and peace.

    So let’s put the “Ch” back into Chanukah! And, yes, let Christians put Christ back into Christmas. Let us not attempt to secularize our religions, or to blur our religious differences. Let us learn to respect each other’s religion. Then there will truly be “peace on earth and goodwill toward all men” and women as well!

    You can read his full sermon at:

  5. Simon, that was my reaction as well. I am sure there are some reading our comments in bemusement. Here is a nice recent discussion about this topic from The Canadian Jewish News:

  6. Nicholas A. McCabe

    Now, if someone came up to me at the office and wished me a happy Hanukkah, or a happy Chinese New Year would I take offense? No, I would not, I would cordially wish them and their loved ones the same. How is it that there is such a furor over the term Merry Christmas? It is perplexing. Lets not contort a positive into a negative on the merits of political/cultural correctness

  7. This topic sometimes gets more serious than it deserves (what happened to the ‘merry’ part, or the ‘happy’?) But some law firms have a sense of humour about it. See the holiday card from the US firm Manatt Phillips, which includes a debate among the partners about the text of the card. (Lawyers! ‘if we wish someone a happy holiday and it isn’t happy, can they sue us?’…)

  8. As a person that does not celebrate Christmas, I don’t take offense if someone who does (or doesn’t) celebrate wishes me a Merry Christmas. However, when it comes to statutory holidays and a common holiday season for the country, I’d prefer not to be reminded that the reason we are getting the time off is because of the traditions of a religion that I do not follow. I recognize the history of the holiday and don’t refute that, but I think as a society we’ve moved to a place where we can’t assume that everyone celebrates the holiday for its religious reasons, or everyone celebrates it at all. Maybe I’d be less offended if every major festival celebrated by the different cultures in this country were statutory holidays. But since that’s not the case and would be quite unfeasible, I admit, I’m all for the secular approach to the season.

    As for Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg’s sermon, he lost me when he clubbed atheism and Islam (and not just the radical propagandists of these belief systems) as common enemies of Judaism and Christianity. Seems to me his bigotry is showing, which is ironic since he claims bigotry is another common enemy. I’d suspect he’d add other eastern religions to the mix if they had a large enough following to be a perceived threat to his Christo-Judaic worldview.

    And speaking as an atheist, I don’t have a problem with Thanksgiving. You don’t need to believe in a higher being to be thankful for what you have. If I were the type who celebrated holidays, it’s the holiday that would get my vote.

  9. Here’s Gail Collins’ wonderful contribution to this subject matter – My Favorite War. From the NYT yesterday. D.

  10. As a second generation Chinese-Canadian, I celebrate Christmas and Chinese New Year as I treat them as winter holidays or “holy days.” If someone wished me “Gung Hay Fat Choi,” I would be tickled pink. And my employer has a policy for employees with other faiths to observe religious holidays, like Ramadan.

  11. I am a Buddhist, My husband is a Christian and our children are mixed. Our family loved Christmas time and we celebrated Christmas every year and don’t mind to say Merry Christmas to every one!


  12. I, like many others, have embraced multiculturalism. I find that the learning of other holiday customs is enriching and certainly emulates good will. Such inquisitiveness is often noticed. When my Muslin friends and coworkers greet me with “Happy Ramadan” and invite me to dine with them they are in essence sharing their culture with me. The same holds true for wishing someone a Merry Christmas. I am sharing my European culture and traditions with them. I am inviting them into a custom of showing good will with no intent of reciprocation. Generalized statements such as Seasons Greetings therefore offer bland homogeneity that is not conducive to celebrating diversity.