Dec. 27, 2017 “Merry Christmas” is a religious greeting that has become a secular one.
By George Friedman
GPF sent out a greeting to our readers that said “Happy Holidays and a Joyful New Year.” We received several polite emails asking that, in the future, we say “Merry Christmas and a Joyful New Year.” It is Christmas; I am a Jew with a Christian wife; therefore, I am quite used to the Merry-ness of Christmas. But decades before I married her, I was frequently greeted with Merry Christmas and understood that it was a statement of goodwill and did not imply an imminent pogrom, nor contempt for Judaism. It was non-controversial.
It has become controversial of late, and it is proper that it should be. It is the question of a secular and religious society, a question that is present throughout the world. In Europe, the question of immigration is being met by people like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as a matter of Christian civilization. On a continent where Germany – a profoundly secular culture, yet governed by the Christian Democratic Union – is the leading power, there are clearly complexities to be considered. In the Middle East, the fall of secular military dictatorships and the struggle of the religious to control the state define the region. In China, the secular state conducts a constant war against the religious whom the government sees as a deep threat. The question of religion and its relation to other religions and to the secular is a constant.
This question has never died down in the United States, and one of the current manifestations is the debate over the propriety and the necessity of using “Merry Christmas” and whether those of another faith or of no faith are offended by that usage. On one side, there is the claim that the nature of the holiday is being falsified by the use of “Season’s Greetings,” and on the other side, the view is that the use of “Merry Christmas” intrudes inappropriately on the public sphere. Many, perhaps most, don’t care, but they miss the point. The question is not separation of church and state, but rather the appropriateness of bringing the church into the public sphere. The question of “Merry Christmas” may not in itself be critical, but the question of the status of religion in culture, where it may impinge on others’ sensibilities, is not trivial. It is a core issue that has resonated since the American and French revolutions. There are those who want to dismiss the Christmas or holiday greeting as unimportant, and in and of itself it might be. But the issue that underlies it is not unimportant. Analyzing it is complex because it involves balancing fundamental rights that are in tension with each other.
Law vs. Custom
Let’s begin with the distinction between the rule of law and the claims of custom. The foundation of a democratic republic is the principle that everyone is equal before the law. There can be no groups that are treated better or worse in the administration of justice. Custom, on the other hand, is not a legal matter. It defines how we treat each other in matters that are outside of the rule of law. This covers most human interactions because most of what we do is governed by custom, not law. This is certainly the case with the manner in which we greet each other in late December.
Ultimately, this is a matter of individual choice, but it is the nature of custom that it constrains individual choice intensely, even more intensely than the law. There is no law that says I must wear a necktie to a gala dinner. (What exactly is a gala anyway?) The necktie is an absurd rag around your neck. Yet I must wear it because custom, and its arbiter – my wife – insist that I wear it.
In a healthy society, custom, rather than the law, defines daily life. It imposes an order on what we do, telling us how to dress for a given occasion, when to give gifts and roughly what they should be, how to raise a child, or when to protect yourself. These are vital parts of life, and a robust culture relieves the individual of decisions, creates a degree of social harmony, and tells you who picks up the check. Many will argue that these customs violate individual rights. Others, myself included, would argue that they relieve us of having to make decisions in a vast array of circumstances and free us to express our individual rights on matters of more substance. My dressing in a certain way for a dinner should not be a matter of thought, nor should raising a child. There are of course issues that must be carefully considered, but each of us cannot invent our own pedagogy – or perhaps we can if we offload the rest to custom. Freedom takes time if you are to do justice to it. We depend on custom to put much on autopilot so that we are free otherwise.
In a democratic republic, there are two groups that have rights. The first is the majority, who control the political process, for the most part. The second are minorities. They also have legally protected rights, ranging from the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to the right to speak, write and worship as they will.
What the Constitution does not and cannot address are the full scale of social rights, such as the right to be invited to my house for a party, or to be treated with respect. These are matters of custom, and the matter of custom we are speaking of here is how non-legal customs are shaped. In other words, how do we address one another around the winter solstice? To impose a legally binding greeting would violate our freedom of speech. It is something that must be handled by custom, and custom is unruly when it’s changing and authoritative when it’s not.
One principle that applies in our political life is that the majority rules and the minority is protected. Customs do not arise that neatly of course. But if they did, we would begin by noting that Christians constitute about 75 percent of the U.S. population, according to most polls. By the simple law of probability, the person you say “Merry Christmas” to will be a Christian. By the old customs, the rest of us would be divided between those who care and those who don’t. Those who care would simply have to accept it, because assuming an even split, only 12.5 percent of the population would be troubled by being greeted with “Merry Christmas,” and no customs exist that don’t make someone unhappy.
However, there is also the principle of tolerance. Since the majority is powerful and needs no protection, tolerance is about protecting the minority. The minority is the other 25 percent, divided between smaller religions and those with no religion. The question is, what, by custom, constitutes tolerance? Law guarantees the right to worship in your own way. But the question here is custom. Are you entitled not to be greeted in the name of a religion other than your own, by custom? And by custom, is it appropriate to be offended if you are?
There are two reasons that people might be offended by a greeting in a different religion. The first is the sense that your own beliefs are held in no account by custom. The other is to use being offended as a tool to reshape culture. The first is not unreasonable, but it is impossible to know what religion most follow. To satisfy the requirements, you must first inquire of everyone you meet what religion they follow. Alternatively, you can abandon the religious greeting of the overwhelming majority in favor of a non-religious greeting in order not to offend anyone.
Our culture has evolved to the point of demanding that no one be offended. In principle, that is simply good manners. But for this customary right to be practical, it must be exercised prudently. If no one is to be offended, then care must be taken that only significant offenses count. Otherwise, control of culture devolves to the smallest groups asserting offense, and the result is the inevitable revolt of the majority.
Tolerance runs both ways. Customs cannot deny Christian greetings out of fear that a non-Christian will be offended. Christians are not claiming legal domination — for the most part. But they are claiming the rights of the religion of the majority to allow customs to be followed. Sometimes it is the majority that must be tolerated, particularly in practicing a customary – and not legal – right.
I almost had it there, but it comes apart. Seventy-five percent of Americans consider themselves Christian, but the number who regularly attend church, whom we might consider devout, is far lower. If we assume that only the devout want the Christian greeting for reasons of religion, they are no longer a towering majority, but still a pretty big number.
I spoke of the culture of being offended as a means for small groups to claim the authority to shape cultural life. This can also be for larger groups that claim the greeting they choose, not only because of religious tradition, but also to assume their claim of cultural dominance. If everybody is saying “Merry Christmas,” then Christians have reclaimed the place they held and have unseated secularism.
This complexity I have woven is now a Gordian knot that can be cut only by simple common sense. The majority of Americans, according to polls, still say “Merry Christmas.” It is a religious greeting that has become a secular one in the same way Christmas has been utterly commercialized. There are those who will be offended, but that cannot be the measure of action. This is not Christianity trying to suppress other religions. Christians are themselves too deeply divided to threaten that, even if they wanted to. Those who wish to use “Merry Christmas” will, and those who prefer “Season’s Greetings” will use that. As for large corporations, they will use whatever their marketing departments suggest. It is possible to push away the issue in this manner, but it does not settle the issue. It keeps returning, and in times of tension it becomes a battleground that is easy to ignore until the battle becomes intense.
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