My girlfriend and I recently decided that we should take a page from the English Christmas book and say “Happy Christmas” instead of “Merry Christmas”. Not only does it sound quainter and more cheery, but it dodges political incorrectness. (The last observation was entirely my own, lest anyone think my girlfriend to be as eccentric as I am.)
My satisfaction was quickly dashed when I remembered that saying anything involving Christmas at all might be perceived as insensitive, since not everyone recognizes Christ’s birth, even as a day to get spoiled with presents and honey-glazed pork goodness. I’m supposed to say “Happy Holidays,” which I think Americans like better only because we think alliteration is cute, despite the fact that an embarrassingly large number of people don’t actually know what alliteration is.
But then even “Happy Holidays” would be insensitive, because it suggests that all people recognize some holiday or another in the month of December and there are those, I was reminded not so gently one year, who don’t celebrate anything at all. I thought about bending it by thinking of the word “holiday” the way Europeans do – as time off from work – since I think most people tend to get at least a little bit of that this time of year.
Then I remembered how many people, myself included, are unemployed and probably won’t find anything happy about their indefinite “holidays”. The last thing I want to do is give out paper-cuts and lemon juice for Christmas (or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or whatever other occasion you’d prefer I reference).
As I thought about this more (did I mention that I’m unemployed?), I realized that there really is no way to wish anything cheerful to anybody without running the risk of hitting a nerve. I’m pretty sure that this doesn’t have anything to do with a desire to discriminate or offend any particular person or group of people, and I’m certain that it doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas at all. I think it has to do with us as a culture taking far too many pains to find fault with the words people choose when attempting to deliver otherwise innocuous messages.
As beautiful as thing as it is, language has always been a difficult thing to navigate – even relatively established tongues like English continue to evolve, quietly rendering parts of themselves obsolete, unbeknownst to the people using them. But keeping up with the elusive pace of linguistic evolution has very little to do with the time we spend taking offense to things which were never meant to be offensive, finding fault with things which were never intended to be binding doctrinal statements, and generally (I would argue sometimes purposefully) misunderstanding the ideas that people are trying to communicate in the first place.
A recent non-holiday case-in-point is the lambasting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received from the media when referring to the progress on freezing Israeli settlements as “unprecedented.” Since her declaration, I haven’t seen the word “unprecedented” outside of quotations, as though it’s now a contaminated specimen, radioactive and only safely handled with lead gloves. Never mind that some progress was made in Israeli. Never mind that Secretary Clinton thought a little encouragement would be more effective in maintaining good relations than authoritarian chastisement.
“Unprecedented” may have offered a little more coddling than was deserved for a partial freeze. But it is not as though she said the mission was over, nor did Israel seem to think that a partial freeze would eliminate U.S. pressure. It was a simple act of diplomacy for which her countrymen threw her under the bus.
The criticism isn’t limited to politics, either. Just a few weeks ago, bad girl Kate Moss made the foolish, though not surprising blunder of saying that “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” is one of the mottoes she lives by. While a little public outcry over this is understandable and probably necessary to make sure she knows she made a boo-boo, the suggestion that she was endorsing eating disorders – which, incidentally, the rest of her statement made it clear that she was not – began to look a little bit like overkill.She probably should have kept that little morsel of modeling advice to herself. But when did we start taking her seriously in the first place? Honestly, people. It’s Kate Moss. Thoughtfulness has never been one of her stronger points, not to mention that anyone who looks to Kate Moss for a dose of profundity or philosophy probably has more to worry about than one poorly-phrased life motto.
Part of the problem is that we neglect to consider context and intention. When Don Imus stupidly made offensive remarks regarding the Rutgers women’s basketball team, he deserved to be chastised, because his intention was to add insult to injury. But when Kate Moss vomited her precious pearls of size wisdom, she was, sadly, giving an honest answer to an innocent question, even if those words should have been chosen more carefully. When Hillary Clinton gave what she’d hoped to be positive reinforcement to Israel, it wasn’t a concession of policy, even if it was a little over-zealous. And when I say “Merry Christmas” to a stranger passing by, I am most emphatically not trying to indoctrinate the world with Christian morals, a fat guy riding a sleigh (can I say “fat guy”?), visions of sugar plums, or creepy claymation cartoons.
That’s not to say that most of us couldn’t use a little refresher course in self-censorship. As far as I know, thinking before speaking is still a desirable character trait and something most of us will teach our children even if we never learned how to do it ourselves. But dancing around the things we’d really like to say, the messages we really need to convey, doesn’t do any service to the gift of verbal communication. If anything, it twists it and uses it to manipulate people rather than just laying the cards out on the table. Why should I say “Happy Holidays” when I mean “Merry Christmas,” especially if my purpose in doing so isn’t to include other cultures but to avoid being labeled a bigot?
This all boils down to the need for more tolerance – not of other cultures, but tolerance of being offended. Instead of taking every word or phrase as a personal attack on a policy, creed, or preference, we should invoke that age-old rhyme regarding the sticks and the stones. I’m not sure when nit-picking language became a crucial part of our culture, but it needs to stop if we ever hope to be able to communicate the things that are really on the hearts and minds of the American people. At a time when the world remains involved in an exhausting war, the economy can’t make up its mind about living or dying, and the long-term comfort of the country is as foggy as it’s ever been, forgiving others for exclusive or poorly thought out statements seems to be the very least we can do not only for each other, but for our individual sanity.
Maybe I will say “Merry Christmas” this year. After all, I live in Brooklyn. A little holiday-related verbal sparring in the street might just make the lot of us feel at home. And of course there’s always that chance, that little glimmer of Christmas hope, that those two little words will cause some Grinch-ly heart to swell threefold, a crooked-tooth smile will spread across the face of my unfamiliar neighbor and he’ll look me right in the eye and say, “Happy Kwanzaa to you, too.”