A couple of nights ago after eating at a Greek Restaurant where I frequently meet friends for dinner, I scribbled a note “Merry Christmas” on the itemized bill and left (what was for me) a generous tip to the very friendly Afghan lady who works there. I left the restaurant with friendly and enthusiastic, “Merry Christmas, Nilo!” and she responded with a friendly and enthusiastic “Merry Christmas, Bob!” I thought to myself how fitting that was, even though I am not a Christian, nor I suspect is she. But that in no way diminished our heartfelt best wishes to each other in the season of giving, hope and good cheer.
And I thought to myself, Christmas is to me, and to many of us who live in the Western world, about more than a religious holiday. Whether or not one believes in Christmas as a reaffirmation of one’s Christian faith, most of us can appreciate and willingly participate in the rituals of family, of caring, of more generous giving, of being thankful for one’s blessings, and of charity to those in need. Christmas is a time when we are encouraged by our Christian traditions and our culture to honor our common humanity with others and to seek to set aside our differences. This is the season to reconnect with family and friends by going to Christmas parties, giving gifts, by travelling to be with family, by calling people on the phone, or sending Christmas cards, pictures, and or emails to reaffirm our special connections. It is a time to recognize and celebrate that we are important to each other; it is a time to nurture our family ties and friendships, and try to be more generous to those outside of our immediate circles. These are not only Christian values – these are human values that frequently get lost in our daily struggle to carve out and protect a place for ourselves in our communities and society. To me, “Merry Christmas” acknowledges this, and says to the other – ‘we are human and I really do wish you well.’
Some lament that the Christian Religion has become less a part of Christmas in America, as America has become more ‘secular’ and religiously diverse. I do not share that view, though I respect it. I enjoy that the fun, joy, and celebration of friends, family, and giving in the name of the “Christmas spirit” is available to a broader spectrum of people than those who consider themselves believers in the “Christian religion.” I appreciate that so many can enjoy and participate in the many wonderful things about the Christian religion during this special time, and that so many Christians are welcoming to those of us who don’t share their religious beliefs, but do indeed share common spiritual values. I am not at all offended when a Jewish friend says Happy Hanukah, nor was I offended when I lived in Indonesia and during Ramadan, my Indonesian friends wished me a happy Ramadan. These well wishers were not commenting on our religious differences or seeking to convince me of the virtues of their religion – they were wishing me well in the generous spirit of their religious traditions.
In my emails to my students, I wish them Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays, and I note “We are at USD (a Catholic University) and are allowed to say Merry Christmas,” respecting the Christmas as well as the Christian spirit.
So, it’s Christmas Eve day as I write this, and I wish everyone, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucians, Shintos, Pagans, Zoroastrians, Agnostics, Atheists, and all others, a very Merry Christmas!