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Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas: What's More Inclusive?

How many times have you heard, “You can’t say Merry Christmas anymore. You have to say Happy Holidays so people don’t get offended.”?

What do you think is more inclusive – Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays? Most people will say that Happy Holidays is more inclusive, but surprise, Merry Christmas is!

The 2021 Canadian Census shows that 31,790 people in Kamloops identify as Christian. That’s 33.62% of the population. Would you be surprised to learn that 57,245 (60.54%) of people in Kamloops identify as having “No religion and secular perspectives”? This includes atheists and agnostics. The remaining folks – Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Traditional (North American Indigenous) Spirituality, Jewish, and other religions and spiritual traditions – make up 5.84% (5,525 people).

Source: Statistics Canada, 2021 Census of Population.

These statistics don’t mean that Christians are suddenly a minority group, and they’re certainly not marginalized. If that were the case, we wouldn’t see so many churches around, Christmas lights up, and a Santa Parade.

Why is Merry Christmas more inclusive? This has to do with knowing what inclusion actually means. To understand this, let’s look at what inclusion is and what it isn’t.

What it is:

  • Being aware of the differences around us
  • Learning about those differences and making space for them
  • Applying a Diversity Lens – seeing things from another’s perspective
  • Awareness of everyone’s celebrations – not just the dominant (Christian) ones

What it isn’t:

  • Ignoring difference
  • Being “politically correct”
  • Not just about being “respectful” of everyone because “respect” means different things to people
  • “Not being allowed to say anything anymore” because someone might be offended

Another thing to look at is intent vs. impact. Whoever “decided” that Happy Holidays was more inclusive than Merry Christmas probably had the best intentions. People point to a handful of other celebrations that happen at this time of year like Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, and Kwanza, and Happy Holidays is supposed to encapsule all of them.

What happens when we tell Christians and everyone who celebrates Christmas that they can’t say Merry Christmas anymore? Let’s have a look at a recent exchange in the comments of a post on a Page owned by a Kamloops organization.

So, what happens? They get mad. And, who are they mad at – who do they blame? The 5.85% of people who practice “other” religions. This leads to an increase in xenophobia (fear or hatred of foreigners) and racism (discrimination against racialized people). Xenophobia impacts people who were born in Canada who are persons of colour, and it impacts people who are newcomers (immigrants or refugees) who are Christians too because they are seen as the reason that we “can’t say Merry Christmas anymore.”

In fact, people who come to Canada:

  • Understand that Canada is predominantly a Christian country
  • Don’t expect Canadians to modify their celebrations, customs, and traditions
  • May celebrate “Christmas” too, even if they aren’t Christians

Christmas in Canada has become as much of a festival celebration as it is a Christian holy day and some people who celebrate are atheist or agnostic. And, some Christians (like the Jehovah’s Witness) don’t celebrate Christmas. Many people have grown up celebrating Christmas but may know very little about the religious Christian context or meaning behind the holiday. You don’t have to be Christian to make space for those who view it as a very sacred time and who may be sensitive to the way their sacred symbols and practices are used out of context due to the fact that the holiday has been so broadly embraced and culturally embedded.

My father is atheist, but he would always take us out to get our Christmas tree. I get Christmas cards from Muslim friends who also put up Christmas trees, and we exchange Eid Mubarak texts. And I’m not Christian.

To be more inclusive, we can learn about additional religious celebrations that people in our community, and our workplace, are celebrating – like Diwali (Hindu, Sikh, Jain), Eid (Muslim), Vesak (Buddhist), and Hannukah (Jewish). And let’s not forget about celebrations and traditions of the First Peoples of this land. There’s lots to learn.

Did you know, Hanukkah is a minor celebration in the Jewish tradition. The traditional greeting is Chag Sameach and you might also hear Happy Hanukkah. Major celebrations for Jewish people are Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah where they are meant to have a day of rest and therefore not go to work. If you are a supervisor with Jewish staff they may request those days off, and it is important that they are given the day off otherwise it could be a human rights issue as religion is one of the protected grounds. A great resource is the 2023 Multifaith Calendar.

Can we still say Happy Holidays? Hey, if it’s your Christmas greeting of choice, terrific. But it’s certainly time to stop telling people they can’t say Merry Christmas and have to say Happy Holidays.

Can we still have Christmas parties? Of course. Let’s also have treats and decorate when Eid and Diwali roll around. What about being inclusive of atheists, agnostics, and people who don’t celebrate Christmas, or don’t want you to say Merry Christmas to them? Make a note and don’t say it to them again.

So, Merry Christmas to those celebrating, and here’s hoping for a wonderful and more inclusive 2023.

Tymmarah Mackie, MA
EDI Coordinator, City of Kamloops