When I was in university, I remember someone wishing me “Merry Christmas” and I wished them the same in return. Something about the exchange seemed a bit off and a few moments later, I remembered that they were Jewish. I felt so foolish that they had recognized who I was and I had failed to recognize them.

Conversely, in the early 2000s, American commentators began claiming that “happy holidays” was a politically correct term, a kind of “War on Christmas,” that marginalizes Christians. Some objected that this argument was silly – do wars usually feature lights, streamers, a giant tree in Times Square and special donuts at Tim Horton’s?

If we look at the situation more deeply and with empathy, the issue is a bit complicated. How can we make the most respectful choice when we are at the office, at a local shop, or just in public?

First, religiously literacy is always valuable and can help us here understand how holiday greetings might be received differently depending on your perspective. Indeed, at least three groups can potentially feel a bit erased by our choice of language:

  1. For some Christians, replacing “Christmas” with more generic terminology erases their holy day in a way not done for Passover or Eid. This can seem simply unfair.
  1. Conversely, for Jews, some may be very aware that many of their relations suffered (or were killed) for not being Christian. Frequent “Merry Christmas” greetings may also feel like an erasure of their history or culture.
  1. Many communities besides Christians and Jews also have holidays at this dark time of the year. This article includes religious holy days for Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Pagans and Buddhists, all within a month of December 25, and the list fails to mention the Japanese Shinto New Year and the African American celebration of Kwanzaa. While Hanukkah gets some attention, these other days are socially invisible.

The truth is Christmas is treated differently because…it is different. It dominates Western society like no other day. Easter, perhaps the second most prominent religious holiday, has nowhere near the same hold on society.

For Christians, the good side is that your festival is very visible. Indeed, society shuts down and every retailer marks the occasion. The flip side is to be aware that many are inevitably brought into the all-encompassing Christmas umbrella who are not Christians. Imagine how a Christian might feel being inundated with Eid greetings.

Given all this, if you know a person’s religious or familiar practices, go with the specific. A “Happy Hanukkah,” or “Merry Christmas,” is best when it fits. It makes the person feel seen and we all like that. But if you aren’t sure, aim for the inclusive “happy holidays.” It communicates good wishes but doesn’t presume too much.

We’re not always going to get it right but with a bit of literacy and a good dose of empathy and respect, we can make people feel seen instead of erased.

Hanukkah, which starts today, is an 8 day festival marked by the lighting of a menorah. Each day, a new candle is lit (there’s an extra candle that does the lighting). The holiday is also marked by eating oily foods, recalling a miracle where a small amount of oil stayed lit for 8 days, enabling the Temple to be re-purified after foreign oppressors had desecrated it.

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