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?