Say it loud and proud: ‘Habari gani!’
December 20, 2005
As I walked into a toy store the other day, the woman behind the counter turned to me with a big smile that flickered before she greeted me with a warm but less than enthusiastic “Happy Holidays.”Happy Holidays?! Her smile had wavered because what she had intended to say was “Merry Christmas!” Like her, I smiled and paused briefly, about to respond in kind with a Happy Holidays! of my own when I remembered another phrase of the season: “Bah! Humbug!” Humbug, a grand word little used that’s shorthand for pretentious or silly talk, words intended to deceive, or plain old rubbish. So I took a deep breath and said “Merry Christmas!” like I meant, because I really did. In response, she smiled like she meant it and responded with a merry “Merry Christmas!” of her own.Happy Holidays! What a dead phrase. Wishing someone “Happy Holidays!” is akin to urging someone to “Have A Nice Day!” the rest of the year. Does anyone seriously want to have a “nice” day? Wouldn’t you rather have a great day, a memorable day, a red letter day, anything but a “nice” day? Both phrases are verbal humbug intended to sanitize the season of its meanings and articulate a lowest common denominator that won’t offend anyone.
Literally speaking, it’s impossible to have happy holidays. You can have a merry Christmas or Passover or Kwanzaa or Ramadan, but you can only have one of them – you can’t have all of them without a split personality. And you can’t make any one of them, whatever your faith or conscience dictates, happy if you have to do celebrate in silence. If you have something to celebrate, then you should feel free to say so.The logic of “Happy Holidays!” is that “Merry Christmas!” is exclusionary and insensitive. It is exclusionary, but then so is celebrating any religious or cultural holiday. As an Anglo-Saxon Protestant, no one takes into account my tender feelings on St. Patrick’s Day, a day doubly offensive to me since it commemorates, with a parade or public puking, an Irish saint and a Catholic to boot! Even those holidays, such as New Year’s, which appear secular and common ground, are anything but. By the logic of “Happy Holidays!”, wishing a happy new year to anyone with a Sino last name risks insulting someone from the planet’s most populous country for whom Jan. 1 is just another day. Of course, by not wishing a happy new year on Jan. 1 to someone who may or may not be Chinese, I commit an equally grievous PC sin of stereotyping, categorizing an individual by certain facial features, atrocious driving habits, or last name.
Is wishing a stranger a Merry Christmas insensitive? One of the false assumptions of being in the majority, the religious majority in this case, is that since you can speak freely so can and will everyone else. No doubt there are folks who experience a twinge of irritation at a presumptuous “Merry Christmas” from a tall, loud, white guy, although in all my years of retail following years abroad, on only a single occasion did I have someone whose faith I did not know smile thinly at me and decline to have a Merry Christmas. Curiously, not once have I ever been greeted on the street or in a public place with “Happy Hannukah!” or “Habari gani?” – the traditional question used by celebrants of Kwanzaa. The strength of the First Amendment is that I can say what I want in greeting, but so can others, although if someone actually said Habari gani to me, they’d best be prepared for a conversation, because I’d want to know all about it.
The First Amendment does not require us to self-censor our speech, nor does it require us to find meaningless neutral ground. Public policy and common sense may restrict the use of public resources to inadvertently promote one religious point of view over another through public displays. That I can accept, although sometimes grudgingly and oftentimes with a theatric rolling of the eyes, as long as I can wish you a “Merry Christmas.” If you’d prefer to say “Happy Holidays!” that’s your choice, although I’m going to assume that you eat white bread, drink coffee from Starbucks, and watch Everybody Loves Raymond. If you have something to celebrate, say so. I know that I will.Marc Carlisle writes a Thursday column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.