Aaron R. Davis
Well, this is it, the lead-up to Saturday’s big Xmas outpouring.
Hey, I wonder if any of you got really peeved when you saw that I wrote the shorthand “Xmas” instead of writing out the full word “Christmas.” For that matter, I wonder how many of you were mildly tweaked that I called this the “holiday season” in this installment’s title. There are people who are really touchy about the apparent distinctions of both words.
That, to me, is the genuine downer of this particular week of the year. Not the long lines in stores or the snow blocking me in the parking lot or the short daylight hours or the fact that every show is a rerun. It’s the so-called and mostly mythical “War on Christmas.”
Now, let’s not get too frosty; I don’t want to write some kind of screed about your interpretation of the reason for the season (be it Jesus or mere axial tilt). My issue is not with religion; it’s with rudeness. There’s a certain kind of presumptive rudeness that makes it impossible — for me, at least — to completely and fully enjoy the final weeks of December. Because for every joy I find in it, there is this one irritation simply lurking on the other side, moray-like, waiting to suck the merriment out of any revelry.
There’s a myth that people are nicer during the holidays. But really, no, they aren’t. No, my experience (and keep in mind that I worked retail for a good part of my life) has always been that even as people are humming to themselves about peace and love and goodwill to all, they are simmering with explosive anger. I suppose I could go on and on here about the weight of expectation and the stress of tradition and all that but, honestly, why bother? You should all know by now that the importance of the winter holidays is in community and family and shared experience and closeness, but there are always going to be people who can’t communicate their love except through rigid slavery to a ridiculous standard of unattainable perfection. That’s fine; I get it.
What makes me crazy, though, is when you push all of that bullshit onto me. Don’t blow your top at me just because you’re all stressed out by the pressure you’ve put on yourself to express your deep feelings through commercialism. This anger seems mainly to manifest itself towards the idea that not everyone in your immediate surroundings celebrates Christmas. (And I have to use Christmas as the only example here, because in my experience, no one ever gets made at you for assuming that they aren’t celebrating Ramadan, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, etc. — no, it’s only Christians who get self-righteous when you’re polite enough to not make assumptions about their religious beliefs.)
“Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” you may wish to someone. Maybe it’s because you don’t want to assume everyone is celebrating Christmas. Maybe it’s because you don’t want to offend someone with that assumption. Or maybe you work in retail or some other service position and are told by the company’s policymakers that you have to use a generic, politically correct nicety because the company doesn’t want to piss off its customers or get sued over it. Which is a nice fantasy, but it assumes that people understand politeness. Generally, no, they don’t.
Too often, when people hear the words “Happy Holidays,” they spit in your face. Metaphorically. And they do it in the worst way possible: through an acid-laced facsimile of politeness. “Merry Christmas” they hiss back at you, but in a tone of voice that sounds less like “May you genuinely experience the joy and fellowship of the birth of my savior” and more like “Go fuck yourself, heathen.” Even people you can count on to be rational the other 11 months of the year can suddenly turn apoplectic with indignation at the mere words “Happy Holidays.”
It’s a War on Christmas! It’s not political correctness or sensitivity or the subtle acknowledgement that everyone you meet is not on the same life journey, but a flat out war to remove Christmas from the calendar! These are the same people who think when you use “Xmas” you aren’t using an abbreviation that has its roots in an important chapter of Christian history that they apparently know nothing about; no, you’re “X-ing out the Christ!” because you are actively participating in the dismantling of religious rights in a country that supposedly guarantees freedom of religion. My own father assures me every year that this is all the work of touchy atheists who want to replace the worship of religious figures with the selfish worship of science and intellect, proving annually that he doesn’t actually understand what atheism is, and that he refuses to acknowledge that he has an atheist as a son.
What no one seems to really understand about retail workers who say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is that, nine times out of 10, retail workers don’t care. I’ve worked those jobs, and I’ve hated them all. Dealing with people all day — people who are demanding of your time and often thankless in making you jump through hoops to meet their ridiculous requests — just sucks. I hardly ever wanted to talk to those people, because usually a “Have a good night” or a “Take it easy” was met with a grunt, or awkward silence, or even utterly ignored. And after a particularly difficult customer who personally blamed me for company policies considered draconian, I didn’t really feel like wishing them well or inviting them to come again. But when you work for a company, you have to smile, greet these people, take their silly concerns seriously, help them as best as you can, absorb all of their rudeness with a smile and then wish them good fortune, because you can’t just tell them that you hope they die in a fire in the middle of the night and take everyone they’ve ever loved with them, which may be what you’re thinking.
Do you think the cashier at Walmart or the guy behind the lumber counter at Home Depot or the shift manager at McDonald’s really gives a shit if you have a nice holiday or not? Of course they don’t! That’s the thing about America: we truly don’t care about what happens to other people, because we’re all worried about how much insurance costs or how many double shifts we have to work to make the rent and what it’s going to set us back to fix our cars. No one outside of your family and very close friends is really worried about your season or your holiday or whatever denomination-specific holy routine you go through. I certainly don’t. I’ll be honest: the only people whose holidays I’m genuinely concerned about are mine, my wife’s and our families’. If you have an awesome Hanukkah or a pleasant Ramadan or rockin’ New Year’s Eve, that’s wonderful for you, but don’t expect me to honestly put my feelings on the line over it.
So when a clerk wishes you “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings,” don’t give them that withering look and angrily correct them and walk away in disgust. Just take the offered empty pleasantry, and return it with a smile. And if you must say “Merry Christmas” back, don’t say it with offense in your voice and bile on your tongue; say it in a way that comes close to approximating genuine politeness. Retail workers are doing some tough work this time of the year, and it’s fun for no one. The last thing they need is someone attempting to make them feel bad for not caring about the specifics of their early winter experience.
When I was talking to a friend about this the other day, he asked me what, as an atheist, I would like to hear. Was “Merry Christmas” really offensive to my ears? And I told him of course it wasn’t offensive; rudeness is offensive. Being told by a Christian to have a Merry Christmas, when meant genuinely, was very nice and polite, and just because I’m not a Christian, that doesn’t mean that I feel the need to go around correcting people. Politeness and goodwill offered is something no one should scoff at, even if it’s not specific to my situation. I would be pretty presumptuous to assume that total strangers know or even care about my situation.
“What does an atheist say in the winter to make their point about the holiday season?” he pressed.
“What point?” I answered. “You want to give me a non-specific, atheism-friendly greeting? Go with ‘Have a nice day.’”
“But doesn’t that offend you, then? You don’t take it the wrong way?”
I still can’t figure out what the wrong way is to take “Have a nice day.” But I’m sure this is the time of year when someone can find it and tell you how the politically correct have declared a war on sunny afternoons.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.