01/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Heathens Stealing Christmas?

My buddy in Texas called me last week to wish me a Merry Christmas and was taken aback when I thanked him, but informed him that I do not celebrate Christmas, that I was not Christian. He actually took offense.

It shocked me. I researched into it and found that it was a common sentiment. Americans all over the country were offended that they had to migrate to "Happy Holidays" from "Merry Christmas".

The arguments go something like:

I'm not asking you to be a Christian, but this is a country based on Christian values and Christmas is part of our tradition.
It's just a time for good will and cheer and that's all I am passing on to you.

Yes and no. It's a slippery slope and one thing is being passed on or construed as another. This country was, you are right, to some extent, built on Christian values. But that hardly means its citizens need to be Christians or celebrate Christian holidays if Christianity is not their religion. This country was also built on Indian lands. I don't see us being forced to celebrate their customs. In America, according to the American creed, we can choose to celebrate or not celebrate the religion of our choice. A secular country means religion is personal, not part of the state.

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Everyone agrees on that.

And it is a great day for Christians to celebrate. I hope every Christian celebrates the birth of Jesus joyously. Merrily.

But let's call an ace an ace and a spade a spade: to say "Merry Christmas" is to say "I hope you celebrate the birth of Jesus merrily".

The term "Merry Christmas" is meant to be said to a Christian or someone that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ.

Try this analogy: my birthday is coming up. It is a day that I celebrate (usually with friends and family). Many of my friends call me up on the phone and say "Happy Birthday." When they say "Happy Birthday", they are saying, "I hope you celebrate the day of your birth happily." You are directing it to the person whose birthday it is. And you hope that their friends join in on that happiness and cheer. And it is true that the friends and family also may be celebrating it with the birthday boy/girl, but you don't go around telling the friends "Happy Birthday."

It would be rather awkward if on my birthday, I call my various friends or send them cards wishing them a happy birthday. It's not their birthday. It's mine.

I suppose I can, if you're being a stickler, call them and send them cards on my birthday wishing that they too are happy and share in the happiness I have on my birthday. The thing is, that is just not our custom. No one does that. And after enough times used, the actual term "Happy Birthday" or "Merry Christmas" has taken on a rather specific meaning.

To say "Happy Birthday" or "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hanukkah" is telling the recipient of the phrase to celebrate this occasion they are celebrating in a happy or merry manner. It does not mean everyone have a happy day on this day that I celebrate. Otherwise, there would be many more birthday cards sold every year.

If I called my Texas friend on my birthday and wished him a happy birthday, he would just reply with "thank you, but it's not my birthday". They are not being birthday Grinches. They are not taking away from my day.

My Jewish friends do not say Happy Hannukah to me because they know it's not something I celebrate. My friend Bob does not call me on his birthday. My Hindu friends do not call me and congratulate me on their holidays. It's just not our American tradition. We don't tell people to celebrate religious holidays that they do not celebrate. To tell me to celebrate the birth of Jesus merrily is kind of pushing a religion on me. Again, I will share in the joy and good tidings, but I will not celebrate the birth of someone I do not worship.

Happy Holidays is a safe bet. It does not mean Christmas has been stolen. It just acknowledges that not everyone that hears it or reads the signs or sees the commercials is a Christian.

This does not mean I do not share in the spirit of Christmas. I love the winter holidays during which Christians celebrate Christmas. There are also other religions and cultures that celebrate other things, and I acknowledge that. In fact, it is my job to call my Christian friends and wish them a Merry Christmas. And my Jewish friends and wish them a Happy Hanukkah. And when the occasion is right, my Muslim friends, Hindu friends, and so on on their respective holidays.

You can tell me to be merry on the day that you celebrate the birth of Jesus. Just dont' tell me to celebrate the birth of Jesus merrily, which is what "Merry Christmas" means.

Merry Christmas, if that's your thing. Happy Hannukah if that's your thing. Happy Kwanzaa, if that's your thing. And if there are other celebrations I am not thinking of, please accept my apologies for the oversight, but I hope you celebrate it happily, merrily, joyously.