Almost two decades ago, I was celebrating Easter at someone’s home when another guest, a relative of the host, approached me. Without preamble she asked, “Do you believe in the risen Christ, Thrity?”
I froze, taken aback by the rude intimacy of the question. To me, religion is the most personal of things and any declarations of religiosity are, by definition, private. As I scrambled my way toward an answer, a million thoughts went through my brain ― should I ignore the question? Should I (rather defensively) say that although I am not a Christian I went to a Catholic school for my entire primary and secondary education? And that the nuns at my school were such strong childhood influences that when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I used to matter-of-factly say, “a saint”? Or should I wait for my toes to uncurl from the embarrassment her question had evoked in me ― embarrassment for her, for her neediness, her poor manners? After all, nobody in my happily secular-minded, tolerant, religious community of Zoroastrians in India would have dreamed of cornering a stranger with such a question.
A moment passed. Then, my default mode of being a smart-aleck when faced with an awkward situation, kicked in. “No,” I said brightly. “But I do believe in risen bread.” And then I smiled, a weak, tentative smile, which I hoped would convey that I realized the lameness of my joke but would also exhibit my general friendliness and harmlessness.
There was no smile back. What greeted me was a stony glare and then a curt turn around as she walked away. I shook inwardly for the rest of the evening, alternatively chastising myself for not having handled the situation better and fuming at the arrogant intrusiveness of the woman’s query.
I have been reminded of that exchange many times over the years and most recently during Trump’s war on the imaginary War on Christmas. He will make it acceptable to say Merry Christmas again, the president thunders. Which is sort of like declaring that he will make it acceptable for the sun to rise in the East again.
Here’s how it goes for me: If I know that someone is a Christian and celebrates Christmas, I will greet them with a “Merry Christmas.” If it’s someone whose religious affiliation is unknown to me, a stranger in a store, say, who may be Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or an atheist, I will use the wonderful, all-embracing, Happy Holidays. One would have to have an extremely fragile ego or a political axe to grind, to be offended by that innocuous greeting. And if one is, I want to shake that person and say, “Someone just wished you happiness, dude! Do you really want to rebuke them for this? It’s like someone saying, ‘I wish you never get cancer.’ What’re you gonna do? Give them grief for it?”
I was raised a Zoroastrian and in the 35 years I have lived in America, nobody, save for my handful of Zoroastrian friends, has called me on March 21 and wished me a happy new year. And you know what? I have not spent one moment of my life fuming about this oversight. Not once has it occurred to me that this is due to some gigantic conspiracy, a covert war being waged against Zoroastrianism, the world’s oldest monotheistic religion. Why would it? Why would I expect my friends to call to wish me a Happy Navroze? Don’t they have other things to do? Aren’t they preoccupied with their own lives? Am I so insecure, so shallow in my belief in my own faith that I should die of a broken heart or wallow in my paranoia if they don’t remember to say Happy Navroze? Of course not. That’s because I’m a contented, fairly mature adult. I don’t need the world to revolve around me and my beliefs. I don’t need to see a conspiracy lurking in every corner. Most importantly, I don’t need to believe that the religion that I was born into — an accident of birth, if ever there was one — is better or bigger than anyone else’s. There are numerous paths to God. And for those who don’t believe in God, there are numerous paths to goodness.
Besides, would you like to know the name of my real religion, my true faith? My real religion is called America. My truest faith is called democracy. My heaven is a polyglot place of diversity and civility, where black and brown and yellow and red and white people live easily and tolerantly next to one another. Along with their pet black and brown and yellow and red and white cats and dogs, of course. And where, each of us can look beyond phrases like Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays and see the sentiment behind the greeting. We are wishing one another joy. We are wishing happiness to friends and strangers alike. How beautiful is that?
Heck, this time of the year I get sappy even at that old chestnut, Have a nice day. Because that over-used salutation is the Thanksgiving of holiday greetings ― resolutely secular, inoffensive to a fault, and all-embracing. Some poor, overworked, underpaid, sleep-deprived retail clerk who works two jobs and still needs food stamps, is wishing me a nice day! Who am I to complain? And, after all, who doesn’t like Thanksgiving?
So, yes, thank you, I will indeed have a nice day. And I will not let the Scrooges of the world, or those thin-skinned mice who are ready to take an insult where none is intended, ruin this time of the year for me.
This December 25, have a nice day, everybody!
Thrity Umrigar is the author of seven novels, including the bestseller, The Space Between Us and the recent, Everybody’s Son. She lives in Cleveland.