Happy Whatever You Celebrate – because we need more happiness in the world


This week I received several kind Christmas wishes from family and friends that blessed me and my Atheist-slash-Secular Jewish family, wished Our Heavenly Father’s blessings upon us, hoped we found peace with The Lord Jesus Christ, and mercifully came short of praying for our souls in light of our non-believing heathen ways.

I think the only real appropriate response is: Thank you.

(Except the one time it was a really good friend and I thought I had permission to remind her gently that not all of us believe in the same stuff, yo, and she was awesome about it.)

I know it’s complicated this time of year.  We want everyone we love to feel the joy we’re feeling. And sometimes we get so caught up in the joy we’re feeling that we want everyone to find it from the same place we do, whether that’s gift-giving, Christmas tree decorating, Menorah-lighting, crucifix-worshipping, carol-singing, or baking irreverent gingerbread men.

I get it.

But while I think it’s my job as a decent human being to be kind and respectful and accept that any sort of Merry or Happy  is only well-intended, I think that it goes both ways; well-wishers need to be equally kind and respectful and accept that we don’t all celebrate the same Merry or Happy. That doesn’t take away from what you do celebrate. It simply means all kinds of people are co-existing in this world right now–maybe even co-existing in the same family–and finding our happy from different places. Which, in my world view, is part of the fun of life.

I love my secular Christmas tree (more Washington Redskins ornaments than angels, thanks to Nate), I love the non-stop holiday music on Pandora, although what’s with the muzak version of U2’s With Or Without You? I love our version of lighting the Menorah when we remember to buy the candles. I love our Peaster tradition, and I seriously loved Greek Easter that one year, except for the whole head of the lamb thing which freaked me out a little especially when people started eating the eyeballs.

But honestly, I do get uncomfortable when I receive those highly religious Christmas cards from people who know us well enough to know that it’s not how we roll.  Yesterday, after one more showed up, I mentioned it on Twitter. Someone suggested that she wishes everyone a Merry Christmas because that’s what she celebrates.

And I thought hm…isn’t the point to wish people a Merry Whatever You Celebrate?

I will always be delighted to wish you a Merry Christmas, a Happy Kwanzaa, a Joyous Hanukkah (complete with spelling of your choice), a delightful Yaldaz, a properous Diwali, a peaceful Solstice, and a jolly good Boxing Day. And for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in my children’s school, I will do my best to remember simply to tell you to have a really nice winter break.

The gift is supposed to be about the receiver, not the giver.

So please, allow me to wish you a Happy Anything You Celebrate right now. We all need more happy these days, whatever the reason.

In return, please remember to wish me a Happy Anything I Celebrate.

And if you’re not sure what that is–for me or your cab driver or your mail carrier or anyone else–Happy Holidays is just fine. It doesn’t take away from what you believe one bit. It might just make more people feel…you know. Happy.


50 thoughts on “Happy Whatever You Celebrate – because we need more happiness in the world”

  1. This is perfect, Liz. When the Comcast tech rep on the phone wished me a “blessed christmas” yesterday I almost said, “Woah nelly,” but I went with “thank you” instead. I kind of wish I’d had, “Jolly good Boxing Day to you,” up my sleeve!

    1. Diwali. I think I might start wishing people a prosperous Diwali.

      Isn’t it so fun just saying Diwali?

      1. I personally think India has the best holidays. Diwali with all the beautiful candles and colorful powder drawings. And don’t forget Holi where you get to cover each other in powder! Fun fun!

  2. I really struggle with wishing people a happy holidays as a Brit in the US. In the UK holiday=vacation so it feels like I’m wishing people a happy trip to Spain or Hawaii. I always say Christmas, not because I’m Christian, but because it’s what this time of year is for me. We joined in Hannukah celebrations with friends this year so I wished them happy Hannukah of course and they us. And when they join us for Christmas we’ll wish each other merry Christmas. I guess I just don’t have happy holidays in my vocabulary yet. Maybe after another year or two here I will have.

    Have a jolly good Boxing Day my dear!

    1. Good point about the word holiday! Oh my gosh, what if they think you’re giving them all trips! Yes, that would be horribly misleading.

  3. The fact that wishing someone well, no matter what you say, has become a contention in our society, with people on both sides getting offended, always makes me sad. And I’m not talking about this post, Liz, because your post is a great approach to it.

    I wish Merry Christmas if I feel like it, or Happy Holidays if I feel like it. That’s the extent of thought that I put into it, or will continue to put into it. I remember an obnoxious blogger *cough- margalit* who got so offended that someone would dare wish her a Merry Christmas, and it was just pedantic and sad. One could get academic about it and argue that Christmas Day is a government holiday so wishing someone a Merry Christmas is secular, just like saying Happy Earth Day, but I don’t even want to give it that much thought.

    Happy Festivus, Liz.

    1. One could also argue that it’s a pagan holiday considering its background and the fact most scholars pinpoint Jesus’ birth in April but eh…details.

      I remember M well the same as you do; but her point is well taken (regardless of how she stated it which does her no favors)–it’s hard to be a minority and have feel like you’re constantly defending your right to be different. When you’re “other,” i.e. not a white Christian male in this country, it’s hard to truly internalize that feeling. Nate and I debate it all the time. (You’d like him.) But really, no need for offense on either side. I just think overall we could use more thinking about others in this world. “Spirit of giving” and all that.

      1. I’d love for everybody to just join hands and sing Kumbaya, but as long as each person can just give other people’s feelings a modicum of consideration, that would be fantastic.

        And hanging out drinking wine and debating/talking with you and Nate would be a blast. If I’m ever in New York when it’s not a conference, we should make that happen.

  4. The most wonderful thing about intermarrying, by far, is that fact that it brought more joyous holidays into my and my children’s lives. I won’t lie, it took a little bit of adjusting. But the best thing about this season is that it seems that there is something for everyone to celebrate and surely that binds us together.

  5. “The gift is supposed to be about the receiver, not the giver.” EXACTLY.

    Seriously – EXACTLY. Gift giving, even in the form of a greeting/salutation, takes an increasingly hard to find ability to step outside of yourself for a couple of seconds and actually see the other person in the conversation. Show them love and respect. It’s seriously not that hard if you try.

  6. Cards in the UK often say “Seasons Greetings”, so I always choose them, when I send them – it makes so much more sense

  7. Your point reminded me of a story about my grandpa. My brothers and I were once appalled when we watched him pick out a horrible-sparkle-plastic-pink-cheapo-pony-toy of a thing for our youngest cousin for Christmas, because it seemed awful to us, and surely it did to him as well. But he just smiled and said that the gift wasn’t for him, he didn’t have to live with it or like it. And my cousin was over the moon.

    I think most actual people are fairly gracious about wishing others appropriate greetings at the holidays. In the media it gets overblown because they want everything to be a war. War is good for ratings.

  8. I noticed I got A LOT of merry Christmas cards this year. More than I remember. And I try super hard to make my cards as non denominational as possible. I’m Jewish. But not everyone is.
    They didnt offend me. It was just a trend I noticed.

    1. That’s interesting Jodi. Wonder what that’s about.

      I don’t think it’s about being offended. I’m not offended. It’s more akin to…getting a gift card to Schmallmart for the holidays. I’d be like thanks, but darn, you don’t really know me, do you.

      1. That’s exactly it. I had no response to the plain merry Christmas nothing else cards. And it is soooo different than what I send

  9. Yesterday a waiter at a restaurant said to me, “Have a blessed day and Happy Holidays.” Now, something about the way he said it implied strongly that he believed blessings are possible. But he didn’t specify WHO should be blessing my day — which I figured left room for Jesus, Ganesha, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I thought about it and decided that was a really nice way of covering all the bases. Also I liked that he wanted me to be blessed TODAY — not just on Christmas Day.

    So, as a secular humanist, I now suggest this greeting to those religious folks who want to be polite to their areligious friends but also just can’t help but share their joy about their reason for the season.

    As for the cards, when I send holiday cards with strong messages, I prefer to send those that say PEACE. As someone who was raised half-Christian, I don’t think that Jesus would argue with that.

  10. I agree with this completely. I have “Happy Hanukah” cards that I give/send to my Jewish friends/family and “Seasons Greetings” cards that I give/send to my Anything Else friends/family. If I know what you celebrate I will wish you a happy That, and if I’m not sure, you’ll get the all-encompassing Happy Holidays from me. I’ll take whatever you give me, because the more people that wish me a pleasant period of time, the better. (I’ll just quietly be touched a little more if you remember I’m a MOT and bust out the Happy Hanukah.)

    Happy holidays!

  11. I feel the very same way, Liz. As a Catholic girl who grew up in New York surrounded by not only fellow Catholics, but also by as many Jewish friends as Christians, I am always uber aware that not everyone celebrates the same holidays. Not to mention all the other religions out there, which are equally as important. From the earliest days, we were taught that people celebrate lots of different holidays and we learned “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” right along with Christian holiday songs from the time we were little.

    Living in the Midwest for lo, these many years now, it never ceases to amaze me how self-absorbed people are when it comes to religion. And it also never ceases to amaze me how angry some Christians get if we perhaps mention that saying “Happy Everything You Celebrate” is a better alternative than secular greetings.

    I purposely buy holiday cards that aren’t specific to Christmas so that I can send them to my non-Christian friends. I can’t IMAGINE, in my wildest dreams, sending a “Merry Christmas” card to a Jewish family or friend, or anyone practicing a religion other than Christianity. I just wouldn’t do it.

    I love the holidays. But I also love my friends and respect the heck out of everyone else out there and whatever it is they choose to believe, worship or not worship. And that’s the rub. It’s about awareness, respect, acknowledgement that not everyone is the same as you are, and consideration. If you’re going to send someone a doggone card or wish them something in person (or online), how hard is it to keep those basic fundamentals in mind? To my way of thinking, it’s not hard at all.

    So I’m with you on this one. Happy doggone everything you celebrate. And much love and good wishes for you and your family in the New Year.


    1. Thanks for this Shelly. It’s another reason we tend to send New Year’s cards. (Besides uh…the fact that we’re terrible procrastinators.)

  12. Yes. I was, however, the only Jewish kid in my (public) school (until my sisters joined me) and I opened school, assembly and my own graduation with a very Christian prayer. I sang Christmas Carols in every “Christmas” assembly.” I was a really good reader and so my principal called my mom and asked she minded if I read the Christmas story out loud at that assembly. (My mom said I couldn’t do it because “If they are asking, it means THEY wonder so it’s better if you don’t.”)

    It was harder than one might think. I was so grateful to see the assemblies change – and the prayers too. The “Happy Holidays” greeting acknowledges the value of all of our faiths/non-faiths and puts us all on a equal “greeting footing.” I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve been somewhere where I once would have felt self-conscious or less included and now feel part of the action; how many UPS guys and reservation clerks and tech support phone staff I’ve wished a Happy Holidays feeing that I was addressing their lives from an equal footing.

    You and I have often talked about my age compared to yours: you never experienced opening every school day with the Lord’s Prayer (or football game or assembly or .) So it probably feels different to you even though you describe the same issues — I probably feel it more intensely. BUT as you can tell, I’m very happy you wrote this in your own unique, loving style – as usual putting wise things forward that enrich us all.

    1. My mother actually was offering the very same sentiment this week, her feeling uncomfortable and left out in a lot of ways this time of year. I think it goes back to being a (Jewish) child of the 50’s – and I’d imagine like feminism, like a lot of things, there’s a generation gap in how easily we take for granted this notion of inclusivity, to the degree that we think we don’t even need it anymore.

      Happy Whatever Cynthia 🙂

    1. Toda Raba, Kristen. (I’m pretty sure that your name doesn’t have a direct Hebrew translation from the Old Testament or I’d use it.)

  13. I love that you wrote about this. When I started my business, I started saying, “Happy Holidays” because I was ultra aware of customers having different beliefs. I remember getting a lot of flack for it actually. But personally, I like Happy Holidays – it covers everything…like for the whole year! But then again, I never get any kind of holiday card out until Valentine’s Day (not even that anymore). So Happy Holidays Liz!

  14. So this has been the debate for a few years, and the longer it goes on the stupider it is. Seriously. I send holiday cards to friends and family. Pre-kids, I’d get a selection of religiously-themed for my religious friends and family and secular ones for others. Now, we have our kids on the cards and I’m not going to print two versions.

    It’s just a card. Most of us buy ours in batches. Some buy batches of ultra-religious, some don’t. I rarely assume that someone picked out a Christmas/holiday card specifically to offend me (or in hopes of converting me or whatever).

    One year our card–featuring our two children on the front–read “Merry Christmas.” I’m sure it cheered our more evangelical Christian friends who are offended by “Happy Holidays” (they’d argue that there’s only one reason for the season and people should state it) and probably pissed off someone else. That’s kind of sad, because while they were being angry and offended that I hadn’t thought of their non-religious preference, they missed seeing our new second child. And they probably didn’t bother to notice that because she was all of 8 months old when I ordered the picture, she wasn’t sleeping through the night and I wasn’t sleeping either and yeah, so when I was asked “hey, what do you want the card to say?” at the store, I was like “um…” and too sleep-deprived and zombie-like to think of the three people who will be offended.

    Later on it did occur to me and I rolled my eyes. I don’t care what anyone else believes. It was a card, not an attempt to convert them. It was the first picture card I’ve ever done–and one I was doing with someone who was still a fairly new baby. And what it meant was “happy Christmas or if you don’t celebrate happy next year and happy holiday season or just I hope you’re happy.”

    This year, ours say something about peace of the season, I think (ordered them in a hurry and haven’t actually looked at the ones I picked up yet), so a different set of friends can take turns being offended. Hey, maybe I ought to alternate the offense by year!

    Better yet: don’t send cards to people who are offended at all! If they can’t look beyond the message to the picture of my kids and our little note about what we’ve been doing the past year, clearly they’re too focused on any little thing someone might do to offend them rather than on what my card really is: “hey, I’ve been thinking of you and hope you are doing well and will have a great year next year.” And don’t open cards from people who will offend you!

    We’d all go a lot further toward that peace of the season if we’d start focusing on what really matters. This or the equally inane “war on Christmas” aren’t it.

    1. I think what really matters this season, or any season, is caring, respect, empathy.

      That’s why I say thank you to any well wishes, however it’s expressed, and look at the real intent behind it. It’s also why I do in fact care what other people believe. Or don’t believe. And I do my best to care, respect, empathize. It’s not about “not offending.”

  15. I recently joked that the only thing weirder than being a Jew at Christmas (a la South Park) is being an atheist any day of the year.

    I recognize well wishes for what they are – whether it’s Merry Christmas (we do celebrate) or God Bless You after I sneeze or prayers in time of tragedy. I know what the sender intends, and if I’m uncertain, I give them the benefit of the doubt.

    Why can’t everyone strive to do the same – assume the best about each other? Especially this time of year.

  16. While I grew up Catholic, attended a Catholic university and am a practicing Catholic today, I always get cards that are non-Christmas specific. I tend to favor “Peace on Earth” as the greeting – I think it’s something all of us can get behind! I also try to say “Happy Holidays” unless I know for a fact that the person is a frequent church-goer.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog and wish you and yours a Peaceful and Joyous Holiday Season!

  17. I absolutely agree. I am Jewish and my husband was raised Catholic. Some of his family sends us cards every year with scripture quotes. We send out Happy Holiday cards to family and friends. Happy whatever you celebrate!

  18. My favorite part of the season, the war on Christmas 🙂 – marrying a Catholic-raised xmas-celebrating atheist opened a whole new world to me 🙂 I can celebrate Christmas with my kids and wish people a Merry Christmas during Christmas and Happy Chanukah when it’s Hanukkah (which gets me a lot of strange looks I have to say). My husband likes to send out a ton of cards so I have to admit we don’t personalize them. I pick the ones I like the best that fit our photo, mix it up a bit. The only one he refuses to buy are ones that say only “Happy New Year” – even when we send our cards in january 🙂 I also find we are getting fewer and fewer cards, so I’ll take what I can get. Happy Diwali!

  19. Hmm. If I send out cards they say Seasons Greetings…mostly because I can’t guarantee that they will make it on time for Christmas Day. But where I live, Christmas has become a secular holiday as much as a religious one. Both my Jewish neighbors celebrate it as a day for family. My non-religious friends do too. My pagan friends mark the solstice, often on Christmas Day because it’s a day off work with time to prepare the feast and Boxing Day to recover from it. And I will wish all these people Happy Hannukah, Blessed Solstice, AND Merry Christmas, should I see them at the appropriate time for such wishes, and I will accept their salutations in the spirit in which they are intended. Luckily I know very few people either so devout or so intolerant that they will feel disrespected by whatever seasonal bit of well-wishing comes their way. And unless they advertise it in some way, honestly I neither know nor particularly care to know about my casual acquaintances’ religious affiliations.

    I am in complete agreement that no one should be forced to pray to a deity they do not believe in in school, nor should they have to make their life decisions based on religious beliefs they do not share. I’m not in the least offended by retailers choosing generic winter holiday slogans, and I think the public institutions should probably acknowledge them all (why can’t the scroll on the buses wish whatever it is on a given day?) if they are going to acknowledge any. Inclusion is good. But not to say Merry Christmas myself would feel terribly inauthentic.

  20. Agreed with the idea of just saying thank you, smiling, and returning the happy vibe.

    You mentioned New Year’s cards- we do the same, except we do it in September for the Jewish New Year. If we *really* wanted to be out there, we could do it in Jan/Feb for (no, not Chinese New Year, jumped the gun there?) the Jewish birthday of the trees, the lesser known of the Jewish New Years. It is one of the 4 Rosh hashanas that exist. Who knew!? Ooh I think my idea is about to go viral, better watch out all of you Tu B’shvat eco nutty kids!

    Happy happy. It is, after all, the traditional time of year for Phish to descend upon Madison Square Garden, and I couldn’t think of anything happier and unifying of people.

    1. I always like Tu B’shvat as a kid. Something about celebrating the trees–we should all do that more often and it sounds like as good excuse as any!

  21. Yesterday, in a scheduling snafu, my husband ended up going to Sunday School at our church, something he typically avoids. The minister who taught-an outspoken feminist whom I really like and whose opinions I appreciate- went on and on about the commercialization of Christmas, hating on the elf, on Santa, on cards with photos and a generic “Happy Holidays.” She was on one. He was kinda miserable.

    Meanwhile, upstairs in the senior high classroom that I teach with a fellow liberal-spiritualist-Christian-skeptic-faithful-inclusionist-feminist, we talked about God as love, love as the reason we’re all here, about tapping into the spirit that binds us all, whether we believe in Jesus or Buddha or John Smith or not at all. We had a kid “come out” , if you will, as an atheist a few weeks ago, and you know what? He still comes. And that makes me feel like we’re doing something right.

    So Happy Holidays to you and yours, Liz, and to your readers as well. Kindness, love, goodness, mercy-let it be so during this season and afterwards, too.

    1. I’m so glad you shared this, what a great point Kelly. I also understand that those who are religious would like to celebrate Christmas in a pious way. As long as they don’t hate on me for doing otherwise.

      However we both have elf-hate in common. To me, it’s up there with Hummels and Thomas Kinkade paintings. (I know people will hate me for that. Sorry elf lovers! You weirdos.)

  22. I’m totally with you on this one…as a Jewish gal (but raised VERY reformed) who is married to an Italian Catholic, we try to celebrate it “all.” When people ask us what we’re raising our kids, I joke and reply, “confused.” But seriously, I’m the person who always says “Happy Holidays” and I’m wishing you the same…

  23. Our family is also an atheist, secular-Jewish, lapsed Greek Orthodox family. We have a Christmas tree covered with travel souvenirs, batman and Lego ornaments and a handful of menorah ornaments. Everyone we know knows where we land on the religious spectrum yet we continue to get “Praise Jesus” cards every Christmas and have people wishing us Merry Christmas. We’ve all learned to roll with it. My husband no longer gets offended when someone wishes him Merry Christmas and my kids don’t feel the need to tell people that they are atheists when someone mentions Jesus (they do have gifts under the tree after all). I’m with you. Just say Thank You.

  24. I always say “Peace.”

    It feels just right.

    ALso, easy for me to do since I”m already the neighborhood nut and have nothing to lose.

    Peace, Liz, to you and yours.


  25. I absolutely agree that wishing SOMEONE something is all about recipient… and that just a little acceptance from both parties will go long way. Although, I tend to get slightly (only slightly) annoyed that December is considered holiday season, when so many joyous celebrations fall at the other times. It took me looooog time to figure out Ramadan’s timing and clue into the Chinese New Year, or Persian calendar, but I took time to ask and honor PEOPLE in celebration. And that is what is all about. I’m happy that my kids’ school mentions all major holidays regardless of denomination, and that most of them get at least some recognition.

    The decision about receiver vs. sender became obvious to me (fairly stubborn atheist that follows one family tradition for tradition sake, not for religious sake) when a very religious friend found out she has cancer. She was so devout, that she forgo a lot of the modern medicine offerings in exchange for visiting monasteries and believing in God even more. Then, one day, the request came: for all of her friends to participate in joint prayer for her health. My opinion on her choices or the efficacy of approach does not matter one yota: I will learn simple prayer and just be there for her and pray with all of my heart, the best I can. It is about her, not about me. It is about doing your best to honor the other person. Even (or more so) when you don’t see eye-to-eye with them.

  26. I have branched out a bit since I first started sending cards, which were all Christmas cards I bought in bulk with various artistic renditions of Mother and Child. They were sweet, serene and recognizable artworks. Inside I would write “Thinking of the gift that you are to us this Christmas.” thinking this covered it for those who did not celebrate. Now I do send Hanukkah cards because we have many Jewish friends, and for those friends who object to religion, I send a Happy New Year card. (Okay, this year I sent NOTHING to anyone) But I do feel a little bit confused by the offense that is taken, maybe because I do not take offense when our friends include us in their Hanukkah celebrations, or when we get secular cards from our friends. If someone wants to wish me happiness, I’ll take it.

  27. Eh. Unless the card mentions hellfire and brimstone, this atheist isn’t going to get too worked up about it. I just like getting cards, especially photo cards. I used to be carefully neutral, but now I get my cards at Costco and the selection is limited. Our last two cards feature Christmas, but our message is more inclusive, and I hope the folks who received them took them in the spirit they were intended.

    1. I just want to point out that respectful isn’t the opposite of offensive. Not because of your comment per se…but a lot of people are using terms like “worked up” and “offended.”

      It’s possible simply to feel not included, or even amused (as we were by the Blessed Jesus Oh Lord Our Lord King of All Lords card) without feeling offended.

      And I like getting cards too! I also like pretty Christmas trees with stars on top. It’s the pagan in me. Heh.

  28. I always go with Solstice because as an astronomical phenomena, it’s something all cultures can agree on.

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