Now that Hallowe’en is over, my thoughts wander to family feasts, snow, and sugar plums. As joyful as the holidays are for many people, there are also some humbugs out there. Between the over commercializing of Christmas, Black Friday extended into Thanksgiving, and some very recent political ugliness in the US (and abroad), I thought this would be an excellent time to talk about holiday greeting etiquette.
For the last few years there have been a number of silly controversies popping up, from the color and style of coffee cups to exactly what greetings people are allowed to offer to wether or not there is a cultural war on Christmas. I honestly believe these controversies are given life because too many people are unaware there are actual standards of etiquette that go along with the holidays, well, that and some people could benefit from a hobby.
So, let’s discuss appropriate holiday greetings. Its important to remember there are many holidays reflecting many religions and cultures during the latter part of the year. Good manners dictates we be mindful of the person we are greeting. The greetings we offer are for them, not us.
What to Say to Whom
Verbal greetings are by far the trickiest of the holiday greetings. Unlike cards, we offer verbal greetings to everyone, friend and stranger alike. Because holidays are rooted in religious and cultural traditions, holiday greetings for strangers take a moderate amount of presumption. Some presumptions are safe, others not so much.
Before Thanksgiving, usually starting the week of, I say “Happy holidays” because I am including the pending holiday of Thanksgiving as well as the following holidays of Christmas and the New Year. A simple “Happy Thanksgiving” is also appropriate. Most Americans observe Thanksgiving in some fashion, and because it is the cultural norm, it is an appropriate greeting for friends and strangers.
Once Thanksgiving is over, we then greet with the coming holidays in mind. Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Al-Hijira, Ashura, and Yule are all observed at the end of the Gregorian calendar year, making greetings to a stranger a bit more difficult. Remember, your greeting is for the benefit of the person to whom you are speaking, so it should speak to their point of view.
There are some things we can safely presume. If you live in the western world, Christmas is the predominant holiday. In modern times Christmas has taken on a more secular role in society. I come from a multi-faith family (Christian and Jewish). Many of my Jewish family members send Christmas gifts, have a Christmas tree, and so on. To them, Christmas is more of an American cultural holiday than a Christian one. The majority of the American population observes the Christmas holiday in some way, whether it be religious, secular, or a mixture of both. It is ,therefor, perfectly fine to wish someone a “Merry Christmas” if there is no obvious indication the person you are greeting celebrates something else.
If you do see an obvious indication that Christmas is not the holiday they observe, feel free to greet them with something specific to their worldview. For instance, if you meet a man wearing a yarmulke, it’s ok to wish him a “Happy Chanukah”. It is worth noting the Jewish yarmulke and the Muslim taqiyah may look similar to those unfamiliar with those particular headpieces. When in doubt, a friendly “Happy holidays” is good option as well as the non-holiday related “Have a nice day”. Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Al-Hijira, Ashura, and Yule are their own holidays with their own religious and cultural significance. They are not stand-ins for Christmas and should not be treated as such.The thing you certainly do NOT want to do is assume a holiday preference based on a person’s color or ethnicity! Do not assume because a person is black they celebrate Kwanzaa. Likewise offering up a “Happy Chanukah” to someone because they “look Jewish” is deeply offensive. Again, the greeting isn’t for you, it’s for them.
What if you are the person offended by a misguided greeting? Suck it up. No, really. Most people don’t mean any offense when they say the wrong thing and should not be punished or made to feel embarrassed for it. Etiquette is all about making those around us feel comfortable. You can either graciously accept the greeting and return it or offer something neutral like, “Happy holidays” instead. NEVER reprimand or admonish a greeting and NEVER use a greeting as a verbal weapon, EVER! If you do, YOU are the Grinch, no one else.
Last year I was doing some Christmas shopping when I overheard a cashier give out a cheerful greeting, the woman to whom she was speaking promptly snatched her receipt from the cashier and snapped, “It’s (insert holiday here)!”. **Im intentionally leaving out the exact exchange for two reasons. #1. It doesn’t matter, slide in any number of greetings and retorts, but the outcome is still the same. The person rebuking the greeting was in the wrong. She was rude. Period. #2. I don’t want your personal bias, and we are all of us biased, to taint the way you view the transaction. A friendly, but (unintentionally) incorrect greeting was offered. It was rebuked. While the greeting may have been incorrect, there was no malice. The rebuke, however was full of malice, and therefor the one that violates the laws good manners.
What if you have inadvertently offended someone? Apologize as you would any other time, even if the other party is behaving in a particularly nasty way, still offer up a sincere apology. “I’m terribly sorry. I meant no offense. I hope you have a very (happy, merry, etc)…” is a nice way to defuse a potentially uncomfortable situation. Don’t flog yourself. Apologize, smile, and them move on.
The holidays are meant to be a time of generosity and goodwill to our fellow man. We can all do our bit by just being friendly. I hope your holidays are full of laughter, good food, and good cheer.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours.