This will be my 14th year living in the United States. As two far away countries can go, there couldn’t be two that are more similar culturally than America and Great Britain. We are two of the oldest and most celebrated democracies in the world, with free-market oriented economies, diverse populations, and of course we share a common language (most of the time anyway). On the other hand, there are some very interesting and unique cultural differences between these two great nations as well—things that would fly in one country, but not the other—and vice versa. A laundry list, that I can probably save for a future article.
One of my mom’s conditions for me moving across the pond all those years ago, was that I always make it back home for Christmas. I have managed to stick to this almost every year. For any of you who have never been to England during Christmas, it’s a truly magical time of the year. Streets are lit up, the weather certainly not as cold as many parts of the northern United States, people are out singing Christmas carols, and nearly everyone is in a seasonal spirit. A beautiful time of the year to visit (hint, hint—wanting to be a good ambassador as well). In fact, one recent BBC article called Britain the most Christmas-obsessed country in the world!
As somebody who is from a northern Indian background, and not even technically a Christian—our family has always celebrated Christmas every year. We have a Christmas tree, loads of presents, and celebrate the special day with family and friends. Moreover, we know other people of a variety of faiths and backgrounds, who also do the same thing. Although of course Christmas is primarily a religious celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, in the UK absolutely everyone is encouraged to, and joins in the festivities. Whether you are Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, or Muslim—people attend Christmas Parties, exchange Christmas presents and say Merry Christmas to each other (actually in England, we say Happy Christmas). Being a religious festival for practicing Christians, millions of whom attend Mass, there is not a widespread perception among any other faiths that this is some type of exclusive celebration. And this is in a very diverse country—in fact many parts of the UK, more diverse than the United States. If you actually look at church-going statistics, Britain is actually more secular than the United States.
Until I came to the America, this was all I was used to. There was no wishing each other a “Happy Holidays” or talking about “Holiday Parties”. I wrote a couple of years ago about my own thoughts about this unique cultural difference and how peoples’ response to me always baffles me, especially as a physician in the hospital, if they think I’m a non-Christian. As an immigrant who has traveled all over the world, my philosophy is that I always go places and want to integrate and join in with local traditions (while still being proud of my own heritage). I don’t expect, or want, the locals to feel like they have to change their cherished traditions, to suit me. So yes, this was a bit of an adjustment to living in America. Nowadays, there is obviously a huge political angle to this as well, and I really don’t seek to get into that. I do not believe there is any “war on Christmas” as some media outlets proclaim. Neither should our current President be trying to use this issue for his own political gain, or those on the left of the political spectrum feel that not saying “Merry Christmas” is a way of making some type of political statement against the current administration.
I just think that America has gone a bit wrong here in thinking that it is somehow “politically correct” to say Happy Holidays or perceive that some people may be offended by the term “Merry Christmas”. Despite any arguments to the contrary, this is clearly a trend that has taken hold over the last decade or so, and evidence suggests that it may have been some of America’s biggest corporations that led the way.
I remember during my medical residency, when I was still new to the country, there was a situation where we were all discussing something by email within our residency program, just before Christmas. I sent an email talking about everybody’s plans and whether we should all have a get together before Christmas. A leader within our program then sent a group email back to me saying that I shouldn’t talk about “Christmas” because we were a “culturally sensitive” program. I was surprised. Yes, it was true we were a diverse program, but we then ended up in a rather preposterous situation over the next few days, where many people who were not technically Christian, who wanted to get into the spirit of things in their new country—were going around saying Merry Christmas—but the people who grew up here, were not saying it!
As a dedicated user of social media, including professional sites like LinkedIn, and being someone who regularly reads news sites, I’ve barely seen one corporate leader who uses the word “Christmas” in the lead up to this special time of year. The same with large organizations—who overwhelmingly prefer “Happy Holidays”. Hardly any big company or institution, whether it’s a healthcare organization, department store, the New York Times or Facebook, will wish people a “Merry Christmas”, even on December 25th. Neither have I personally worked with any organization over the last 10 years that will say Merry Christmas in their email or other mass communication channels. I don’t think it’s because they don’t want to, but rather because they are afraid, in this hyper-sensitive society—amplified by social media—that a slight misstep or slip of the tongue, can lead to a torrent of outrage. And we certainly do seem to be living at a time of perpetual outrage unfortunately. What a shame. I can honestly say that in years of meeting people from all over world, I have never encountered one non-Christian who is offended by the term Christmas. On the contrary, most would love to be included in the celebrations.
The scenario probably goes something like this for a leader or a large corporation: At some point an email is sent or a speech given. One person out of hundreds or thousands may take some type of offense or raise an objection (and there are always going to be miserable people out there who are ready to raise an issue over anything, no matter what). 99.5 percent of people had no objection whatsoever. After that, because everyone is so scared of potentially causing any offense—a change in terminology ensues that affects everyone. It could be with the words “Merry Christmas”, a term like “Ladies and Gentlemen” being said at events (yes, some people are pushing for that to be scrapped), or any other totally benevolent greeting or term that isn’t in any way offensive.
Once again, I think the “war on Christmas” is a hyped-up political argument. There’s no war. We’ve just got ourselves into a bit of a silly, tongue-tied situation. In fact, by seeking to become more inclusive, we’ve actually succeeded in making Christmas more exclusive, and further splintering and dividing America.
I sincerely hope that we can get over any political hangovers, and realize that the Christmas tradition in Western countries goes back centuries, and there’s no reason to worry about any offense. As a side point, I wonder too, what the reaction might be in India, if any movement started to stop saying Happy Diwali, or in the Middle East, if anyone wanted to stop saying Happy Eid—and start a whole new term instead. It probably wouldn’t fly and be seen as an affront to a proud tradition.
Even if one doesn’t celebrate the religious component, this can certainly still be a time of seasonal goodwill, compassion and kindness—as it’s supposed to be. As a non-Christian myself, indeed much more of a spiritual, I still appreciate that Jesus was an exceptional man, his teachings beautiful and timeless, and personally feel inspired by his story. Yes, I can do that without being a Christian.
I sincerely hope that America can learn from England in this respect and not go further down this faux route of “political correctness”. I hope that we never get to the stage where we are talking about a Holiday Tree or a Holiday Carol. I would far rather use the term Season’s Greetings than Happy Holidays anyway! None of this means that anyone should ever be forced to celebrate anything, everyone is free to choose what and how they wish to celebrate this time of year. But it simply means we should properly acknowledge the Holiday and tradition, and not be afraid to say so if that’s what we are doing.
Last year, a Brit journalist in America, who actually interestingly writes for Britain’s most left leaning (semi-socialist!) Guardian newspaper, put it very well in this article titled: “The Brits have it right: forget Happy Holidays, just wish people Merry Christmas”. She called the viewpoint that saying Happy Holidays in the United States is “politically correct”, not just strange—but also a cop out.
So come on America, take it from someone who is not even technically a Christian: we should acknowledge the real Holiday in an all-inclusive way that encourages everyone to join in.
Merry Christmas folks, and wishing you a happy and peaceful time with family!
Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician, author and speaker. He is the co-founder at DocsDox and founder of DocSpeak Communications. Learn more about him here.