With less than two weeks until Christmas, cheerful greetings abound. But what is the appropriate way to wish someone well this holiday season?

The debate over whether or not it’s socially acceptable to say “Merry Christmas” to non-Christians has been raging for years, even becoming important to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign as he promised to “end the war on Christmas” started by those who advocate for the less specific “Happy Holidays."

To help you decide how to share your festive spirit this season, the Inquirer turned to two holiday-greeting enthusiasts to debate: “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”?


Merry Christmas!

As a Jewish immigrant, let me tell you: Christmas in the United States is a lot. It’s everywhere. You can’t escape it. My first Christmas in the U.S. as an adult was in 2013 and I was overwhelmed by the trees, wreaths, snowflakes, tiny lights, and red and green decorations — all lit up weeks before the actual holiday. When I joined my wife’s family for church on Christmas Eve that first year, I was surprised how much the pastor talked about Jesus. Nowhere in the scores of Santa Clauses and peppermint lattes was there ever a hint to an outsider like me that there is a religious element behind the holiday.

In the years since, I’ve learned that while I don’t like Christmas carols — especially performed live — or the shopping frenzy that America gets into ahead of the holiday, there is one thing that I really like about Christmas: People seem genuinely excited to spread holiday cheer, whatever that might mean to them.

Kristen Alderson performs during the Philly Holiday Tree Lighting Celebration at City Hall on Dec. 4, 2019. Writer Abraham Gutman enjoys all kinds of holiday celebrations, but admits that he doesn't care for Christmas carols performed publicly.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Kristen Alderson performs during the Philly Holiday Tree Lighting Celebration at City Hall on Dec. 4, 2019. Writer Abraham Gutman enjoys all kinds of holiday celebrations, but admits that he doesn't care for Christmas carols performed publicly.

There is no doubt in America that Christmas overshadows other holidays. It makes Hanukkah seem small and frankly, more religious compared to the cultural and social Christmas.

The solution of some well-meaning people who want non-Christians, or Christians who don’t celebrate Christmas, to feel included is a tweak in language: In mixed company, say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Other people, who feel that this erases the holiday, call this the “War on Christmas.”

This frustrates me because the best thing about living in a religiously diverse community is bringing one another into our faiths.

The “Happy Holidays" greeting doesn’t really make sense. The reason that offices all over America have “holiday” parties in mid-December is not because it is when multiple religious celebrations collide on the calendar — it’s because of Christmas, the most culturally dominant holiday in America. In 2013, for example, Hanukkah was in late November. So when someone told me, a Jew, “happy holidays” in late December 2013, what holiday was I supposed to be celebrating?

The point of a holiday greeting is not about guessing the correct holiday that someone is celebrating, but about sharing your own cheer for your holiday. When someone says “Merry Christmas” to me, I don’t hear them making an assumption about my religion, but them sharing a part of theirs. Plus, if you want to wish me a happy celebration of my holiday: Ask what I celebrate instead of just throwing out a generic greeting.

The best thing about living in a religiously diverse community is bringing one another into our faiths.

Abraham Gutman

Saying “Merry Christmas” got a bad reputation because Fox News hosts and President Donald Trump have invented the “War on Christmas” to throw fuel on the flames of a culture war that doesn’t exist.

This year, if you just want to share your holiday cheer with me, share it however makes you happy — or merry. Just don’t be offended if I wish you a Happy Hanukkah.

Abraham Gutman is a staff writer in the Opinion department of the Inquirer.


Rebecca McDonald (left), 20, takes a selfie with her boyfriend, Cliff Woldar, 23, both from Vineland, after the community menorah is lighted at the Betsy Ross House for the first night of Hanukkah in 2018. Writer Denise Clay feels it is important to be inclusive of all holiday celebrations this time of year and not just Christmas.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Rebecca McDonald (left), 20, takes a selfie with her boyfriend, Cliff Woldar, 23, both from Vineland, after the community menorah is lighted at the Betsy Ross House for the first night of Hanukkah in 2018. Writer Denise Clay feels it is important to be inclusive of all holiday celebrations this time of year and not just Christmas.

Happy Holidays!

When I was growing up, the topic of how to address the winter holidays never really came up. Sure, my parents were serious enough about their Christian beliefs that if you skipped church on Sunday, you couldn’t go out and play with your friends, but the holiday cards we sent out said both “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas” on them.

It wasn’t that big a deal in our house to send two sets of cards.

We didn’t feel threatened by having to acknowledge other holidays while celebrating Christmas. But some people feel differently, including President Trump who has claimed that more people are saying “Merry Christmas” again, following a so-called “War on Christmas,” a cultural debate that has waged in America since the early 2000s.

When you say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” ... you are erasing the importance of experiences of people who don’t share your beliefs.

Denise Clay

But when you’re a member of the dominant culture — 65% of Americans identify themselves as Christians, according to the Pew Center for Research — having your traditions recognized is never in question.

When you grow up in a community that’s been integrated by the United States Military — like I did in Pemberton, N.J., just outside of what is now known as Joint Base Dix/McGuire/Lakehurst — you find that the dominant culture is not the only culture and there’s a lot you can learn.

Through Pemberton Township High School’s Annual International Festival and other school activities, I learned that everyone looks at this time of year differently. Hanukkah begins the day before Christmas Eve this year. Kwanzaa, starting Dec. 26, is a cultural holiday that some celebrate in lieu of Christmas. All of these holidays are equally important.

So when people say “Merry Christmas,” it bugs me. And that annoyance comes from the anger I feel whenever I see someone marginalized, even when that marginalization isn’t intentional. When you say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” or something that includes celebrations beyond those anointed by Christianity, you are erasing the importance of the experiences of people who don’t share your beliefs.

And let’s be honest — Christmas has become so hopelessly commercialized that the Hallmark shelves barely reflect the original intent. Christmas is not alone; all of these holidays that started out with spiritual or cultural meanings seem to eventually get corrupted. Enticed by day-after shopping, Americans barely celebrate Thanksgiving anymore due to the hyper-commercialization of the holidays. Don’t get me started on the number of Black Friday fight videos that take up space on my social media timelines as people who should know better engage in fisticuffs over the flat-screen television that Wal-Mart didn’t order enough of to meet the demand they had to know was coming.

At a time when the inclusiveness that liberal America pays lip service to is being replaced by the kind of xenophobia that has thousands of people in basketball stadiums shouting “Build That Wall!” without irony, using a greeting that’s kind of a catch-all makes a lot more sense to me than trying to force your culture on someone else.

So while I appreciate the spirit, I’m not willing to indulge in the erasure that goes with it. Happy Holidays!

Denise Clay is a freelance writer from Philadelphia.