Welcome to The 12 Days of Thatz Not Okay, a special holiday edition of a regular column in which I school inquiring readers on what is and is not okay. Check back tomorrow for our next seasonal installment. As always, please send your questions (max: 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject "Thatz Not Okay."
In a needlessly long, drawn-out and eventually tack-spitting online discussion of this season's perpetual "Merry Christmas" vs. "Happy holidays" vs. "Joyous Hannuchristmakwanzticember," yours truly found herself dumstruck by one participant's announcement that s/he ASKS "Do you celebrate Christmas?" BEFORE offering any kind of well wishes, so as to be able to dispense a proper "Merry Christmas" to fellow Christians and a "Happy holidays" to everybody else.
Yours truly is of the opinion that a sincere wish for a happy and prosperous midwinter season is a marvelous thing, and generally is happy to accept such a wish delivered in any verbal configuration.
HOWEVER, in the bigger picture, does the act of dispensing such wishes entitle the wisher to pointedly ask the about-to-be-wished-upon what the wishee's religious practices are, as a precondition to dispensing said wish?
It has never occurred to me that what or how I choose to celebrate is the business of anybody who does not already know the answer. And while my initial reaction to this assertion of the right to interrogate somebody about their seasonal celebration habits was one of gobsmacked incredulity, perhaps I missed a memo, and sussing out somebody for their Christianity (or lack thereof) before offering good wishes is now a Thing. Is that OK?
Thatz not okay.
Wishing someone a Merry Christmas is the emptiest of empty gestures. When you say “Merry Christmas,” what you are really saying is “It's December.” Maybe you are saying "I think you are an asshole" (if you use it in a line like "MERRY CHRISTMAS, BUDDY" while peeling out of a 7-Eleven parking lot with your middle finger raised to the sky). "Merry Christmas" is like "Good morning" in the sense that you say it without particularly caring whether the person you are saying it to ends up having one. It's even less meaningful, in fact, because "Merry Christmas" doesn't have an accompanying hand motion, like a wave. It's all verbal.
All of this is to say: If you are thinking at all about how and when to say Merry Christmas, you are over-thinking it.
The reason people offer a blanket “Happy holidays!” instead of restricting their wishes to Christmas, Hanukkah, or #ThrowbackThursday is to avoid making someone feel like an awkward outsider if he or she doesn't observe those days. All the politeness points you acquire by saying “Happy holidays” are rendered null and void (cash value: $0.00) if you preface your well-wishes with a religious interrogation. The whole idea of "Happy holidays" is that you don't need to know what holidays someone celebrates in order to use it. An even safer bet would be just to sing the theme from Happy Days (since some people don't observe any holidays at all), but this is too time-consuming to gain widespread support.
As with all greetings, the important factor here is intent. If a person makes you feel bad for wishing them a Merry Christmas, that’s on them. (And you've WASTED a "Merry Christmas" because they don't deserve one!) Unless you work in a rectory, synagogue, or Kingdom Hall, most of the people you will encounter in your everyday life probably accept Christmas as a pretty secular event at this point. Just as you are unlikely to offend someone by wishing them a Happy St. Patrick’s Day ("No green beer for me, I'm Protestant!"), people probably won't take offense if you smile at them and produce a short, kind sentence. "Merry Christmas" isn't a spell that magically turns devout Muslims into Christians. It's a seasonal cultural greeting.
If you are the sort of person who is perturbed by the idea of accidentally wishing the wrong kind of nice time upon a stranger, it’s no skin off your nose to just say “Happy holidays!” or even “Have a real chill day.” But take comfort in the fact that it is virtually impossible to make an error when expressing your desire that someone have a pleasant day. (By the same token, if someone wishes you, say, a happy Hanukkah, you don't need to tell them "I'm not Jewish!" You just need to say "Thanks! You too.")
Don’t turn Christmas into a fun-sized Inquisition. Save that for Ash Wednesday, when it's a lot easier to do on sight.
And don't have long Internet fights about the proper way to express good tidings unless it's in the comments of this post.