We are well into the holiday season here in the United States, and with it comes what has become a perennial and sometimes prickly conversation about how to express holiday best wishes in the workplace and in general.
Some folks opt for a more generic “happy holidays” for everyone – work colleagues, check-out folks at the grocery store (because we go to the grocery store A LOT during the holidays), baristas at the coffee place (because, you know, caffeine), friends, neighbors, strangers, whomever – because it’s easy and catchall.
Others stick to a specific holiday wish – “Merry Christmas” – because in this country the Christmas holiday is the “gorilla in our midst” and most (but not all) of our population here celebrates Christmas in some form, either secular or religious. A recent photo from a Twitter friend who is Jewish depicted his Hanukkah menorah with two burning candles in the foreground, and his fully lit and decorated Christmas tree in the background. Indeed, Christmas here isn’t just for Christians.
In general, the best practice in the workplace is to express holiday wishes in both ways – the more generic as well as the holiday specific. How so and why?
The generic “happy holidays” is a wish that captures the facts of religious diversity in the workplace, in our society, and in the fall/winter portion of the calendar. The United States is an incredibly religiously diverse country whose residents and citizens include people from all the living religions of the world. And from September through January, folks from many of these different religions celebrate major holidays: Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah; Hindus celebrate Navaratri and Diwali (Sikhs & Jains also celebrate Diwali); Bahais celebrate the birthdates of two of their holy people; Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus; Sikhs commemorate the martyrdom of one of their gurus; Wiccans and other Pagans celebrate Samhain; Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day; and, depending on the lunar calendar, Muslims may be celebrating Ramadan and Eid. And this just gets us through December – other holidays from several traditions fire up in January and February.
(If you don’t know what most of these holidays are, you know what to do. Hint: learn. Knowledge is the gift that keeps on giving.)
So, saying “happy holidays” to your work colleagues, friends, or strangers at the store is an inclusive, all-purpose way to acknowledge that there are, indeed, many religious and cultural holidays being celebrated this time of year – not just the one celebrated by the numerical majority here in this country – and that you wish for everyone to have a nice holiday (whichever ones they celebrate, if they celebrate at all).
There is still room, however, for a more specific holiday greeting. If you know the cultural and religious practices of the person you are greeting, then greet them with a specific greeting. Say “happy Diwali” to your Hindu colleagues, or “happy Hanukkah” to your Jewish friends, and so on. This expresses your goodwill and respect for people whose holiday traditions may be different from yours, and it helps build a culture of tolerance and respect for people of all faiths and no faith. It also helps folks from minority religions feel “seen” in ways that are often rare in a consumer culture like ours so centered on Christmas shopping (which apparently begins after Labor Day now).
Here’s the thing to keep in mind: holiday greetings and well-wishes are about the people we are greeting. Greet people in the ways that are meaningful to them, not in the ways meaningful only to you. “Merry Christmas” isn’t meaningful to Buddhists ; “Happy Samhain” isn’t meaningful to Christians, and so on. You get the point. So, if you don’t know the particular religious traditions of your colleagues, don’t guess, and don’t default to the culturally dominant holiday and say “Merry Christmas.” Just say “happy holidays.”
Try not get political about it. For goodness’ sake, there is enough political ire and division in the world already. Opt instead for peace and goodwill to all people – sentiments in keeping with the best of all holiday traditions.