Should we wish others a “Merry Christmas” this week? Americans are deeply divided on the issue. According to a new survey, 47 percent of us think we should greet each other with “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” out of respect for those of different religious faiths; 46 percent of us disagree.
As we will see, the issue is larger than it seems.
I can understand the case for being inclusive. Christians are to defend our faith “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15) by “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). We want our beliefs to be respected, so we should respect the beliefs of others.
In addition, Christmas is not a holiday mandated by Scripture. It was not celebrated by the church until the fourth century after Jesus’ birth. Nowhere does the Bible require us to wish others “Merry Christmas,” an expression that did not become popular until the early twentieth century.
Why, then, shouldn’t we broaden the holiday to include everyone regardless of their faith (or lack thereof)? Consider three questions.
One: What about other religions?
If “Merry Christmas” might offend non-Christians, could Ramadan offend non-Muslims? Could Hanukkah offend non-Jews? Could Vesak (the celebration of Buddha’s birthday) offend non-Buddhists? Should any religious holiday that might offend any person who is not part of that religion be abolished or amended?
Two: What about the sentiments of Christians?
Requiring Christians to say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” feels to many believers like a depreciation of their Savior and their faith. If we should avoid offending non-believers, why is it acceptable to offend believers?
Three: Should the minority dictate to the majority?
Some claim that Christian holidays are unique among religious traditions in America because they are so ubiquitous. You can ignore Ramadan or Hanukkah if you wish, but it’s hard to avoid the Christmas season. Thus, Christians, more than those of other faith traditions, should be made to honor the sentiments of non-Christians.
By this logic, however, the minority would always be able to dictate behavior to the majority. This logic would extend even to heaven and hell. In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis exposes what is behind the claim that none in heaven should be happy if souls are perishing in hell: “The demand of the loveless and self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy; that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”
So, how should we approach the “Merry Christmas” debate? Here’s my advice: Ask the Holy Spirit to show you how he wants to use your words and witness in engaging non-believers today. Ask for the sensitivity to respect the beliefs of others while stating your beliefs clearly and boldly. If the Spirit leads you to wish someone a Merry Christmas, do so with sincerity and grace. If he leads you to defer, be sure you do so only out of sensitivity to them and not from a lack of commitment on your part.
Here’s the larger lesson behind this simple subject: We are called to be Jesus’ witness in the power of the Spirit every moment of every day (Acts 1:8). When we fulfill our calling, those who accept the Christ we proclaim will have a Merry Christmas, indeed.
We are called to be Jesus’ witness in the power of the Spirit every moment of every day (Acts 1:8).
NOTE: For my response to yesterday’s Electoral College decision, please see Why the Electoral College is Biblical.