Question: "Since you write so often about the fact that 'language matters,' I'm curious whether it's OK to wish friends and colleagues a 'merry Christmas.' When some people say it, I sometimes feel that there's a subliminal message of evangelical Christianity with all its trappings, including homophobia. So, is it 'merry Christmas,' 'happy Hanukkah,' or 'happy holidays'?"
Answer: Actually, I think you have it a bit turned around, my friend. You may not have heard, but there is a hushed (and sometimes not so hushed) "war on Christmas." Conservatives (whether Christian or not, I can't say for sure) complain that the milquetoast greeting "happy holidays!" is an effort by a Jon-Stewart-Stephen-Colbert-Nancy-Pelosi-Barney-Frank conspiracy to kill off Christmas as we know it. Apparently, their nefarious goal is to have no more "Santa Baby," no more White House Christmas tree, and no more jolly greetings of "merry Christmas!"
If anything, Gov. Rick Perry has only added to this conspiracy with his recent television ad, where he stated, "There's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school." If Gov. Perry wished me a "merry Christmas," I'd take it in the same way that Southerners often say, with a treacly smile, "Bless your heart" -- which Urban Dictionary defines as "a phrase used by Southern women to excuse themselves for speaking ill of someone else." Or in common parlance: nasty-nice.
Here's the etiquette problem that Perry and others are using to score political points: lots of faiths and cultures celebrate something at this time of year. Wishing someone a merry Christmas makes the assumption that the object of your cheery greeting celebrates, well, Christmas -- when in fact that person may celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the winter solstice, or some other year-end holiday. Using something non-denominational like "season's greetings" or "happy holidays" is a way to acknowledge this festive time without making any assumption about the person's religious beliefs. Some Christians, however, get bent out of shape about that -- thus the "keep Christ in Christmas" and "the reason for the season" campaign and the distinctly un-festive uproar over neutralizing the holiday.
If you remember, it was just about a year ago at this time that NPR's Nina Totenberg drew the considerable wrath of the Fox News crowd when she called a "holiday party" a "Christmas party" and then apologized ("forgive the expression") for her alleged faux pas. Conservative bloggers went crazy accusing Totenberg of having drunk too much "holiday" eggnog -- although they really meant to say she had drunk a flavor of Kool-Aid favored by liberals.
So, egads, what to say when you mean to make nice? As I've said often before, intention is one of the guideposts we should pay most attention to. The other day the UPS fellow dropped off a box at my front door, and after I signed for it, he wished me a "merry Christmas." As a half-Jew, I took absolutely no offense; in fact, I wished him the same.
But a year ago this month, I tuned in to an AM radio station just as the host shouted out, with a nasty snarl, "Merry Christmas!" before launching into a diatribe about how the dominant religion (that would be Christianity) in this country is now being infringed upon -- that is, silenced -- by the minority (that would be everyone else). Believe me, I was offended.
Some participants in this cultural war of words are people like Amanda Barnes Cook, an out Christmas celebrant, who jumped into a conversation about this on my Facebook page, writing sagely, "Personally I like to say 'Happy Holidays' because it's more inclusive." And there's no likelihood of foot-in-mouth disease -- unless you are among those trying to banish Christmas from the planet. Honestly, though, I can't seem to find any of them (but if I've missed you, please raise your hand). In my experience, folks who say "happy holidays" are likely just trying to show good manners and not offend non-Christians.
So, here's the takeaway: if Gov. Perry or any of his Tea Party Santas wishes you a "merry Christmas," take it for what it is -- a veiled (and they think polite) way to express their political agenda. For the rest of us, here's my advice: if you know someone celebrates Christmas, wish that person a merry one. If they're Jewish, it's "happy Hanukkah." And if you don't know a friend or a colleague's seasonal persuasion or had too much bourbon-laced eggnog, stick with the slightly generic but one-size-fits-all greetings, "happy holidays" or "season's greetings."
And for now, "Happy new year to one and all. Bless your hearts!"
This column originally was published on Advocate.com.
Steven Petrow is the author of Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners and can be found online at www.gaymanners.com. Got a question? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact him on Facebook and Twitter.