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“Happy Holidays!” When religion clashes with holidays

I get that this was done with the best of intentions, but it was ridiculous anyway.

The program I studied in college was a very specific one, and thus I didn’t have too many classmates. We all knew each other, and at the very least had some sort of acquaintanceship. The overall atmosphere was much closer to a work environment than a school, so imagine the dynamics of the office. It should also be noted that while I wasn’t the only non-christian there, I was the only one of my particular religious affiliation. You wouldn’t know it to look at or even spend some time with me as I’m pretty casual about it, but that has never stopped certain folks from making assumptions once they find out.

So holiday season roles around and things start to get pretty festive. Despite it not being “my” holiday and the lack of tree in my home, I enjoy this time of year. There are greetings of “merry Christmas!”, “happy Hannukah!”, “Eid mubarak!” and of course “happy holidays!”.. and basically whatever someone wishes me is what I wish back. It’s all good. Everyone should be able to celebrate their holiday as they see fit. Shortly before my class is meant to go on our holiday break posters go up informing us of the upcoming departments’ Christmas party. It was open to everyone, so no rsvp was required.. all we had to do was show up and enjoy. When I checked the actual date of the party, I realized I wouldn’t be able to attend. Boo, but I had other plans so what could I do?

About a week before the party one classmate asked me if I would be attending. I said I wouldn’t be able to, but that I hoped everyone would have a great time. They asked me if I actually celebrated Christmas and I said no, it’s not a part of my faith, but I love this time of year. The conversation petered out and I didn’t think anything of it. A few days later I noticed that the vibe towards me from a couple of other students seemed a little bit different. Not hostile or terribly off-putting, just different.  Eventually the student who was in charge of the party came up and told me that he was sorry if I was offended, and that he hoped I’d come to the party now. I asked him why I would be offended and this is what he said to me:

“Well we knew you felt excluded because it’s a Christmas party and that’s why you’re not coming. We’ve changed the name and theme to a “holiday” party, so we really hope you’ll join us now!”


Basically the chatter was that I don’t actively celebrate this holiday and thus wasn’t going to attend this party as part of my tiny, passive-aggressive war on Christmas. Not only that, but they’d changed the whole thing to accommodate me! It certainly explained why I was getting weird vibes from some students. Even after I pointed out that it had nothing to do with my beliefs, but rather that I had obligations elsewhere, I continued to get some attitude. And they never changed it back to a “Christmas” party.

The saddest part is that, despite my “victory”, I still wasn’t going to attend. I already had a friends’ Christmas party to go to.  0608-11


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Chocobo December 6, 2011, 3:02 pm

    I’d like to add that the whaling on political correctness in some comments seems counter-intuitive to me. Isn’t not offending other people the whole point of etiquette, and by extension this website? I think we need a few more inhibitions, not less.

  • Library Diva December 6, 2011, 3:36 pm

    Sara, I definitely agree with you. I think that a lot of the “inclusion” that goes on around this time of year is Inclusion Lite. If people really wanted to be inclusive, they’d bother to learn what holidays are important in the religions of people in their lives and acknowlege them. I try to do this, as a reporter for a weekly paper in a town where there is a large Jewish population. Rather than pointing out, “hey, Hanukah happens around this time of year!” I wrote a major story for Passover, and plan to do so each year I’m here.

    And yes, if I happened to be covering an event in one of their synagogues this time of year, and someone wished me a happy Hanukah, I could handle that just fine. I’ve always believed that everyone should take greetings in the spirit they’re offered, and respond politely however they feel comfortable (which excludes “Merry Christmas” said in a super-aggressive manner).

  • Lilac December 6, 2011, 4:21 pm

    I love Christmas time! And I’m an atheist. I think most non-believers understand that this is a special time of year for almost everyone in our country no matter what they believe. It seems ridiculous to make a fuss about the religious trappings when we non-Christians are enjoying all the positive things about Christmas and have adopted the secular aspects (many of which have a non-Christian origination) of this time of year to create our own holiday season. This isn’t the best analogy but for us, Christmas is kind of like Halloween. There used to be a religious message to Halloween but that has gone by the wayside and Halloween has become something that everyone can enjoy. That’s how I feel about Christmas. It’s part of my cultural heritage (my ancestors are Catholic) so we have many important family traditions attached to this time of year. I just don’t celebrate religiously but I certainly don’t object to those that do. I have no problem with my kids learning Christmas carols for school concerts, Nativity scenes, or other Chrismas decorations. And I think most atheists would agree. We celebrate Christmas for the message of peace, joy, and love. This “war on Christmas” nonsense is just sensationalism that really isn’t in the spirit of the season. We like Christmas and are happy to share in the happiness if brings!

  • Allie December 6, 2011, 4:53 pm

    I don’t get why non-Christians would be offended by Christmas parties. There’s nothing remotely Christian about Christmas trees or Santa, so unless your Christmas party includes a full on mass with holy communion, it’s really just a celebration of the winter solstice with some pagan symbolism and eggnog. If you’re not Christian, the birth of a baby saviour can be merely symbolic of the rebirth of the year and the coming of spring as the days start to get longer.

  • jen a. December 6, 2011, 6:46 pm


    Thank you for summing it up perfectly! The OP really had nothing to do with the outcome of this silly gaffe – it was completely taken out of proportion.

  • shari December 6, 2011, 6:48 pm

    I thought it was wonderful that they thought enough of you to change the theme so you felt included.
    Eved if it was a little misdirected it’s nice to see.

  • DocCAC December 6, 2011, 7:05 pm

    @Pixie I think you missed the part in my rather long post where I said she doesn’t have to explain why she couldn’t come, it just would have been nice if she had made some comment about why she wasn’t attending. And I never meant to imply she was responsible for what the group thought. I still think this is not a situation where anyone belongs in eHell for a misguided attempt to change things around so as to try and make her feel more comfortable about attending. Unless of course someone actually accused her of “waging a passive-agressive miniwar on Christmas” and then commented on or told her they resented her “victory” (OP’s word, not mine) as in “You got your victory and you’re still not coming?”. Sorry for any misunderstanding.

  • Roslyn December 6, 2011, 7:39 pm

    I lucked out at my last job and I worked with a Catholic, a Lutheran, and a fallen Non-devotional Christian. I’m an Esoteric Pagan and we celebrate the Holidays for almost 2 weeks! I was the first Pagan any of them had ever met and we all got along famously.

    The key is understanding that we are all different, and we should celebrate our differences. Don’t avoid the subject but look forward to it! You don’t have to celebrate the Holidays at all if you want yet still enjoy the season.

    But hey we Pagans had the season long before the Church stole it from us and then burned us at the stake!

  • Another Alice December 6, 2011, 7:50 pm

    I agree with those who say the OP is under no obligation to explain his/her absence, and that people’s assumptions about why she is not attending is their own problem, and none of hers. Say she *was* Christian and not attending – is it any more correct to wonder, “Oooh, I wonder if she hates us!” or “I wonder if she’s going to see her boyfriend?” or whatever? No. You smile and say, “Aw, well we’ll miss you!” Also, the OP pointed out that she would have loved to attend, but “couldn’t” – not that she “wouldn’t,” adding that she loved this time of year, so that to me is clearly enough indication that the Christmas theme was not offensive to her.

    I will say that it IS lovely that the host wanted you to attend and made arrangements to ease her mind – even if they were based on incorrect assumptions. As others’ have said, it’s wonderful to be so wanted! However, it seems that the real problem was the uncomfortable atmosphere that followed. It seems the OP felt some people were offended (based, again, on an incorrect assumption) that she was the reason for the theme of the party to be changed. Of course, that is absolutely not true. Hopefully it will be a fun enough Christmas party that they won’t remember this incident anyway! 😉

    As a side note, although I celebrate Christmas, I’m not particularly religious in any sense. However, I still find myself preferring to say, “Merry Christmas!” as opposed to “Happy holidays!” This is sort of hard to explain but . . . I feel that if one celebrates any particular holiday, regardless of its religious affiliation, saying “Happy [whatever]!” expresses the speakers’ wish that you enjoy that particular day, whether you do absolutely nothing special or have a whole feast. If someone said “Happy Hannukah!” to me, it’d still be just as lovely as a “Merry Christmas!” because I take it more as a more specific, “Enjoy this day/time” as opposed to, “I assume you celebrate what I do.” All joyful holidays are about spreading joy – I take it where I can! 🙂

  • grumpy_otter December 6, 2011, 8:19 pm

    Count me one of those who think these folks were trying to be sweet, considerate, and inclusive. I’m an atheist but never snap back “Happy Holidays” if someone wishes me a “Merry Christmas”–I answer with whatever is said to me first. But if someone told me they were changing their Christmas party to a Holiday party so that I would come–I would be touched beyond measure!

    The “weird vibes” the OP felt may simply have been “Do you think we offended her/him?”

    In this lovely season, let’s all be grateful for moments of (attempts at) tolerance!

  • Cat whisperer December 6, 2011, 10:23 pm

    The aerospace defense contractor my husband and I worked for figured out long ago how to deal with the sensitivities associated with the religious overtones of the holidays.

    They don’t have a Christmas party. They don’t have a “holiday” party. They have a year-end “Hey, it’s the end of the year and we’re all still employed!” celebration.

    I kid you not. Aerospace defense contractors invented the concept of laying off dozens of people in one fell swoop when a contract with the government gets cancelled or is lost to a competitor. If you make it to the end of the year, you really feel like you have something to celebrate. So the party that others call a “Christmas party,” or even a “Holiday party,” is called a “Year-end morale party” if you work for an aerospace defense contractor.

    …And since the money to put it on comes out of the company overhead budget, and in a lean year (like this year), the company can run through its overhead budget long before it’s time to plan the party, sometimes it ends up as soft drinks, coffee and donuts in the “event center” during the lunch hour as the shell-shocked survivors of the most recent round of layoffs give thanks that they didn’t get their pink slips this time around, and look forward to updating their resumes next year.

    The overall “vibe” of the party can best be decribed as follows: “Merry Christmas, everybody! Happy Hannukah! Joyous Kwanzaa! Eid mubarak! Have a great Solstice! Whatever you celebrate, and we don’t give a rat’s rear-end, have a good one! Or not! It’s immaterial. You’re still employed! You survived another year! You’re SAFE! At least until the next round of lay-offs. Enjoy!”

  • Lilya December 7, 2011, 5:52 am

    Warning: as I mentioned in my previous comment, people who try to dictate my feelings because they obviously know how I feel better than I do are a major berserk button for me. As a consequence, I feel rather strongly about this story.

    I don’t agree that what her classmates did was in any way “sweet” or “meant to be inclusive”: they didn’t react to his/her real feelings, their actions were based on *their* idea of what his/her feelings should be and they didn’t bother to verify whether said idea was right or wrong.
    I find their behaviour patronizing and condescending: “Oooh, look at us, we are SO open-minded and inclusive! We obviously know best! We’re respecting other people’s feeeeeelings!”
    Except they weren’t, because they did. not. know. what those feelings were!

    Even if OP had been bothered by the “Christmas” part of the party, they alone could decide whether to bring it up or keep quiet. It’s their feelings, their belief and they are they are the only ones who have a right to act upon them.
    OP’s classmates had no right to pick OP’s battles for him/her.

  • Javin December 7, 2011, 11:28 am

    Things I have actually heard around this office for the past 4 years:

    “Don’t eat lunch at your desk during Ramadan [even though you normally do this for the rest of the year] as it may offend the Muslims [2 out of 150] that work here.”

    “Don’t leave water bottles sitting out on your desk during Ramadan, as it may offend the Muslims that work here.” <– Interestingly, we do have two menorahs on display, though.

    "Don't put up a Christmas tree, or say Merry Christmas, as it may offend the Muslims that work here."

    Long story short, we are instructed to change the way we act on a daily basis to respect the Muslim religious holidays, even to the extent of DISRESPECTING Christian religious holidays to keep from offending the 1%.

    And what do the Muslims think about all of this? As friends of one of them, I can say that *he* is mortified every time upper management starts passing around these kinds of PC rules. It was even him that pointed out the absurdity of making people hide water bottles and change their lunch habits for his religious holiday, but then on *their* religious holiday, they're expected to skip the festivities.

    This PC stuff has gotten completely out of hand. America is a Democracy. The majority having to cow to a minority – a minority that doesn't even WANT their "cowing" – is beyond asinine. I also find it interesting that Christianity is the only religion that it seems "okay" to disrespect. I'm not even a Christian. This is just an outside observation.

  • lkb December 7, 2011, 12:54 pm

    @Natalie: IMHO, the point of etiquette is that by treating people properly, it will make everyone feel comfortable. The sentence you quoted from my previous post was meant to convey the irony that by following the PC route, nobody felt comfortable. I find that to be very unfortunate and yes, sad. A joyous celebration was dampened because no one wanted to offend.

    If I did not convey that clearly in my previous post (and if I’m still not conveying that well now), I apologize.

    May everyone have a joyous holiday season.

  • girl_with_all_the_yarn December 8, 2011, 5:08 am

    I actually had something like this happen back when I was in high school.

    I’m of a particular religion where not everyone realizes that we are, in fact, Christians. Not entirely sure what they think we are, but that’s beside the point. My Junior year my competition choir was planning a Christmas party and they happened to be holding it on the weekend my family made our annual trip to a big city about 3 hours away from our small town for Christmas shopping, decoration admiring, and going to see a movie not in the tiny 4 room theater in town. I was asked if I would be attending. I politely said I couldn’t make it, and someone took that as “Oh, since she’s not Christian she must not celebrate Christmas.”

    They changed the whole party to include Channukka, Kwanzaa, and something else, I’m not entirely sure what anymore (it got complicated by the end). By the time I found out, I was touched and so pleased that they were willing to try and make me comfortable, but I still had to explain that I literally couldn’t make it, as I’d be out of town in the city during the party. Good laughs all around, they didn’t worry about it so much after that.

    Now, however, every time I can’t make it to a party I give a little explanation just in case they change the party and make it a little more complicated than it needs to be.

  • The Elf December 8, 2011, 2:48 pm

    Javin, while things like that certainly happen, and it is going too far for sure to ask people not to eat at their desks. Political correctness can turn painfully awkward, even nonsensical, and actually create more problems than it causes. However, I’ve seen it the other way around more often. For instance, since I’m not Christian, I often opt for funny or whimsical “Happy Holidays” Christmas cards. I actually had one coworker take umbrage that my card didn’t include “Merry Christmas” or feature any typical Christmas-y images like angels or trees. I was so taken aback I didn’t know what to say. When I worked on campus, we essentially shut down between just before Christmas and didn’t get back to full operation until the new semester started in mid January. So the week before Christmas I wished departing customers (mostly faculty and staff) “Happy Holidays”. A few people spit back “Don’t you mean Merry Christmas?” No – I was refering to the New Year too, but thanks so much for keeping the Christmas spirit in your heart!

    It’s little things. I’ve seen many holiday displays include other religions symbols or make reference to multiple holidays to be inclusive and I’ve seen only Christmas displays, but I’ve never seen a December holiday display that DIDN’T include a Christmas reference. I think part of the problem is since the overwhelming majority of Americans are Christian – 75% by last census – the Christian holidays become the background. They’re omnipresent. It’s a given that most of the people around you celebrate, so things like taking off early on Christmas Eve is winked at by bosses and the like. It just happens, by default. We have to make effort to include other holidays and other religions, and that effort is observed and noted.

    I’ll give you an example. I worked with a man who was an Orthodox Jew. In the winter, sunset comes pretty early in the day, and people have long commutes around here, so he had to make special arrangements to take off work in order to be home in time for the Sabbath. He did this by working the hours earlier in the week, so it all ended happily. But coworkers couldn’t help but notice that everyone else was staying until 4 or 5 and he scooted out mid-afternoon. It’s the end of the week, we all want to go home. If it was a popular Christian tradition to start Sabbath on Friday evening and Sabbath observations included not driving, you bet a typical office job would have Friday workday ending at noon. Why bother staying open when 75% of your workforce just went home? But since it is only the one guy….

  • Cat December 9, 2011, 10:47 am

    I know how you feel. My problem with assumptions is because I do not drink any form of alcohol. I do not partake because of only one reason: I cannot stand the taste of alcohol. Wine has no flavors to me-I can only taste the alcohol. Same thing with flavored mixed drinks of all sorts. I’m half-German and a quarter-Scot so I should be able to live up to my ancestors’ reputation, but I have the taste buds of a twelve-year old. Give me a chocolate bar and a cola and I am a happy girl.
    What assumptions do I get? First, I am asked if I am an AA Member.When I explain that I am not, I am asked if I am a fundamentalist Christian and think drinking alcohol is a sin. Christian, yes, but Jesus changed the water into wine, not the wine into water so I have no problem with anyone who wants to partake of alcohol. Just don’t get drunk and barf in my car. It gets a bit tiring trying to explain what is no ones business but my own.

  • MellowedOne December 11, 2011, 10:10 am

    I am a Christian but do not celebrate Christmas. So I do understand the OP’s experience very well. There have been many a party renamed (when I worked), but I have always looked upon it as an expression of kindness..a desire to not exclude me from festivities. To me, it was a sweet gesture. 🙂 I was asked each year but always declined with a smile and a sincere thanks for their offer.

    I’m not really sure why the OP felt bad about the incident.

  • Kat December 11, 2011, 7:33 pm

    Okay, so this is the holiday SEASON. When someone says Happy Holidays, instead of getting offended, why don’t we accept it gracefully and realize that Happy Holidays can refer to Thanksgiving, your winter celebration of choice, and New Year’s all in one? (Not directed at the poster; directed at people who get offended by Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas.)

  • Gracie C. December 15, 2011, 12:13 pm

    Not sure why anyone is applauding the classmates for their good intentions. There may have been one or two who had good intentions, but since the OP was getting negative vibes and was being treated different I’d say the majority of them were behaving rudely and harboring ill-will toward the OP for something that had nothing to do with her.

  • --R March 28, 2012, 12:54 am

    I am not a Christian, but I do not mind if I am being told to have a happy holiday, which I take as a sentiment that tries to be tolerant, or a merry Christmas or a Happy Hanukkah. I take the latter as a feeling of inclusion in a celebration, which is a kind statement even if I do not share the religion.

    That, and I am relatively certain that many people can be stressed out or on auto-pilot in certain situations and while intending to be nice, just say what comes naturally to them.

    What I dislike is an obviously Christmas themed party called a Holiday party. I am not accusing all holiday parties of being Christmas parties by another name, but I have attended some with a bit too much Santa, holly, evergreen, and reindeer to really pass as anything else. Even if Christmas can be secular (My mostly non-religious family still celebrates it), I rather that people be honest about it. Asking someone of another religion to partake in a meaningful religious celebration is very touching, and there is no need to call a duck a goose. I personally believe that being asked to partake in the religion of another is a very nice sentiment even if I do not share that religion.

    Through what I hate most are the ‘holiday’ breaks that schools have that pretty much only suited the Christian kids. Through after reading the comments here, I am glad not to have complained on the behalf of others and made a PC blunder. (Through I would have supported anyone asking for help were I still in school of course).

    As for the kids, I agree with the statement of A for effort, Fail for execution. The kids yes, bungled it up fairly badly, but I think over-reacting PC-ness can be better at times then maliciousness, but that would be up to the OP to decide.