THE BLOG
12/22/2015 10:04 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'Happy Holidays' Instead Of 'Merry Christmas': Your Legal Right At Work, Not A War

I know some folks claim there's a "war on Christmas" that includes saying, "Happy Holidays" instead of, "Merry Christmas." I won't get into how silly the whole argument is, but I will say this: you have a legal right to not have your employer force you to celebrate a particular holiday. If you don't celebrate Christmas, you probably don't have to spout Christmas greetings to your customers and coworkers.
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If you do celebrate Christmas, then please don't forget that there are many other religious holidays being celebrated in December. Some of your customers and coworkers may not want to have Christmas shoved down their throats. I've actually heard retail clerks carry on loud conversations in front of customers about how they are going to say, "Merry Christmas," and that anyone who doesn't is part of the "war on Christmas." I'm offended by that and I do celebrate Christmas. Imagine how offensive that is to a customer who celebrates a different holiday than yours. Why not say, "Happy Holidays," and include everyone in your greeting?

Here's just a partial list of the holidays other than Christmas being celebrated this month:

  • Jews: Hanukkah
  • African Americans: Kwanzaa
  • Muslims: Ramadan, Ashura, Eid al-Fitr and Eid'ul-Adha
  • Japanese: Omisoka
  • Pagan: Yule, Saturnalia
  • Buddhists: Bodhi Day
  • Zoroastrians: Yalda and the death of the prophet Zarathushtra
  • The Rest Of Us: Festivus

As to your rights at work, the holidays are one of those times that bring religious discrimination suits by the boatload. Here are some of the ways you may be subjected to illegal discrimination at work this month:

Merry Christmas: If your boss forces you to use a religious greeting to customers, you have the right to say no, unless your job really does require you to do so. Obviously, if your job is department store Santa, you have to say it. But a retail clerk does not. Nobody who doesn't celebrate a religious holiday should have to use religious greetings. Some Christians, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, don't celebrate any holidays, so even Christians should not be forced to use the greeting if it is against their religious beliefs. On the other hand, while your boss can probably ask you to use a more generic greeting to customers, they probably can't prohibit you from using the greeting with people you are certain also celebrate the holiday.

Office parties: Your boss shouldn't pressure you to attend the office holiday party. Many people don't celebrate holidays at all, and some just don't want to attend a party associated with Christmas even if the company tries to keep it more generic. Another good reason not to force employees to attend is they could have a disability that prevents them from attending. Forcing people to attend parties is a good way to end up explaining to EEOC in 2016.

Costumes: If your boss tries to make you dress up like Santa, an elf, the Grinch or another holiday figure, you can say no if it's against your religious beliefs. Plus, forcing the oldest employee to dress like Santa because he has gray hair is an age discrimination suit waiting to happen.

Decorations: I don't care if your department is in a company-wide decoration contest. If you let them know that you don't want to participate, nobody should force you. And nobody should decorate your desk when you step away for a minute. You can say no to decorations.

Time off to celebrate: Whatever your religious holiday, your religious beliefs should be accommodated. You can reasonably ask for time off to celebrate your holiday. Unless there's some hardship the employer will suffer by granting the accommodation, they have to let you take your holiday off.

If you are being forced to participate in a religious celebration, you can ask for a religious accommodation to be excused from it. If you need to do something to celebrate your religious holiday, such as time off or wearing something specific, you also have the right to ask for a religious accommodation. I suggest putting any accommodation request in writing to HR so you have proof you said it was a religious accommodation.

If your employer denies a reasonable religious accommodation, contact an employee-side employment lawyer in your state or EEOC to find out about your rights.

Happy Holidays everyone!

For more information about employment law issues, check out Donna Ballman's award-winning employee-side employment law blog, Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home and her employment law articles at AOL Jobs.