Merry Christmas! Or Happy Holidays? A Social Capitalist Take

You are parting ways after a business meeting around this time of year, and note your colleague is pausing for a moment. They may well be thinking, “Merry Christmas! Or Happy Holidays?”, trying to summon an appropriate greeting for the season.

I know many friends are a bit frustrated that when they are excited about Christmas coming up, they need to filter their instinct to wish people “Merry Christmas!”. Saying “Happy Holidays” instead may feel like a watering down of an important celebration in the Christian tradition.

Let’s start by talking about the upside of choosing the “Happy Holidays” greeting from a social capitalist perspective. We at SCI seek to build community in an inclusive fashion. In keeping with the great American value of religious freedom, we want everyone to feel comfortable in our communities to observe their unique cultural and religious traditions and still feel very much a part of the community they call home.

For someone who doesn’t observe Christmas, those of us who do ought to be sensitive to the challenges of not being part of the dominant culture around this holiday season. Saying “Happy Holidays” is a way to signal we respect each person’s right to celebrate what they wish, and also acknowledges that there are many different traditions observed in the United States.

Yet there is something lacking from the “Happy Holidays” greeting. Yes, it is safe, but it is pretty generic. Social capital is about building relationships, and that entails getting to know people at a level that goes a bit further than a safe “Happy Holidays”. Our religious and cultural holiday observances are a big part of our family life and our identities. Part of getting to know someone thus might well include learning about what holiday traditions they observe.

Getting to know more about other’s traditions helps us be a better friend or colleague. For instance, I’ve learned that Hanukkah is of lesser significant in the Jewish calendar than the Yom Kippur and Passover religious holidays. If a Jewish colleague is not as fired up about Hanukkah as we are about Christmas, this could have something to do with it! And there could be some feelings about Christians making an assumption that Hanukkah is somehow a “Jewish version of Christmas”, just because it falls near Christmas on the calendar and includes some gift giving. When wish a Jewish friend “Happy Holidays” now, Hannukah ended a couple weeks ago, and they observe their own New Year as well as often partaking in the festivities around January 1. What to do with this information if you celebrate Christmas? Some awareness and sensitivity is a good place to start. Better yet, find an opportunity to chat with a Jewish friend or colleague about their traditions. You might even ask what they do around Christmas, or feelings they might have about it. Earnest conversation about such things definitely builds social capital!

Of course, there are many other holidays observed in our communities in addition the ones I’ve mentioned so far. Those of us celebrating Christmas might be a bit more aware of Hanukkah because of its proximity to our holiday, and perhaps we might have more Jewish friends in our circle than Muslims or Hindus. But to be a Social Capitalist who can help make everyone feel welcome in our community, it is good to be aware of major holidays celebrated by others. A starting point for you: Ramadan, a major Muslim holiday starts on June 7 in 2016. The holiday involves some serious fasting, too, something to be sensitive to if you are planning events or activities. Diwali, the Hindu festival of the lights, is on October 30, 2016.

My point here isn’t to give fellow Christians a rundown of all the other religious and cultural traditions. There’s Google for that! I’d say my biggest points would be to engage in conversation about traditions, and to be sensitive about friends and colleagues that might have important observances on what for you is just a regular work day.

Here’s a social capital pro tip: if you know someone observes a tradition other than your own, and one of their holidays is coming up, ask them how they are observing it. Maybe find out what an appropriate greeting is for the holiday, keeping mind some religious holidays are more celebratory in nature while others are on the somber side.

Of course, I’m advocating for conversation about traditions as a way to build relationships. But of course, read how your colleague responds to such topics. If they eagerly share tidbits about their observances, go ahead and ask more. If they seem more reserved, respect their desire to be more private about their holiday observances. And of course, many Americans are more secular than religious these days, and they might have mixed feelings about holidays with religious roots that are part of their family tradition.

So if you’ve followed my advice, and know that someone is celebrating Christmas this week, please wish them a “Merry Christmas!”. If you’re not sure, make note of that. Ask them about it, or see if they talk about Christmas shopping or gifts received. Psst...if they are Christmas shopping, that’s a pretty good sign you can wish them a Merry Christmas! But if you’re not sure, it is a signal you might do well to get better acquainted with them to have a deeper relationship. And yes, wish them a Happy Holiday.

When we take the time to get know acquaintances from work or community activities, we develop more points of intersection with them. Knowing what holidays someone observes, and offering them an appropriate greeting, can strengthen the relationship in subtle ways...perhaps similar to knowing to say Happy Birthday to a work colleague.

So if you are celebrating Christmas this week, a very Merry Christmas to you! Happy New Year to all, best wishes for peace and happiness in 2016.