Editors' Note: Guest blogger Warren J. Blumenfeld is an Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Iowa State University. Among his books are Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States and Readings for Diversity and Social Justice.
When people wish others a "Happy Holiday Season," or just "Happy Holidays," what exactly do they mean? This "season" usually begins around Thanksgiving and lasts through December until the first day of January, "New Year's Day."
Thanksgiving in the United States commemorates that mythical time when "the Pilgrims" and "the Indians" shared a joyous meal together.
While the only remaining Patuxet man who had survived slavery in England, named Squanto, did help the Pilgrims, in later years, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared the first official "Day of Thanksgiving," after the so-called "Puritans," who had stolen land from indigenous peoples, then aided by English and Dutch mercenaries in 1637 (on the Christian Gregorian [Pope Gregory XIII] calendar), surrounded, shot, and killed an estimated 700 unarmed members of the Pequot tribe.
So if we are wishing people a "Happy Holiday Season" between Thanksgiving and New Year's, I suppose we cannot include Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs, some who celebrate Diwali ("Festival of Lights"), commemorated beginning in late Ashvin (between September and October on the Christian Gregorian calendar) and ending in early Kartika (between October and November).
So now we are into December. What are we including in our "Season's Greetings"?
A major happening that comes to mind is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere of the Earth, that exact split second, usually occurring on December 21 or 22 on the Christian Gregorian calendar when the Earth's axial tilt is farthest from the sun. Also called the "first day of winter" in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice marks the seasonal reversal when days begin their gradual lengthening and nights shorten. Many groups celebrate the winter solstice in a number of ways, from sharing a meal, to lighting candles, to hanging lights, to song and dance fests.
Well, also in December, among many other celebrations, there's Chanukah, also known as the "Festival of Lights," an eight-day Jewish holiday observing the rededication of the Second Holy Jewish Temple in Jerusalem when, in 3593 on the Hebrew calendar (167 B.C. on the Christian Gregorian calendar), the Maccabees conducted a revolt for independence. Chanukah begins at sundown on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which falls anywhere from late November to late December on the Christian Gregorian calendar. Celebrants each night light candles on candelabra called "menorahs."
In addition, Kwanza, created by Maulana Karenga and first celebrated in 1966, honors the universal African heritage and culture, and is commemorated annually between December 26 and January 1 on the Christian Gregorian calendar. The name "Kwanza" was drawn from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning the "first fruits of the harvest." Celebrants each night light candles on candelabra called "kinaras."
And there's Christmas celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Though this is not actually the known date of the birth of Jesus, most Christian denominations, though not all, celebrate Jesus's birth on the 25th of December on the Christian Gregorian calendar. And the first day of January, known as "New Year's Day" marks time from the supposed birth of Jesus.
Christian Cultural Imperialism
Earlier and earlier each year, often now following Halloween in late October, merchants and media begin announcing "Happy Holidays." While many holidays, both religious and secular, come around this time, "Happy Holidays" is in all actuality coded language for "Merry Christmas" and "Happy (Christian) New Year." In fact, most non-Christian major holidays do not fall in December.
How many people in the United States really care or are even familiar with non-Christian based holidays and celebrations? What are these "Winter Parties," "Winter Concerts," "Winter School Breaks," and "Winter Vacations" really about?
I would ask, how many Christians would have even heard of Chanukah had it not come around each year usually in December on the Gregorian calendar? In actuality, Chanukah is a relatively minor Jewish holiday, equivalent to, say, Arbor Day.
In fact, what we are experiencing is a form of Christian cultural imperialism (hegemony): a promotion of the larger Christian culture, celebrations, values, beliefs.
Examples of Christian cultural imperialism during the so-called "Holiday Season" are many: the constant and prolonged promotion of music, especially Christmas, by radio stations, and Christmas specials on TV throughout November and December each year; Christmas decorations (often hung at taxpayer expense) in the public square in cities and towns throughout the United States; the highly visible and widespread availability of Christian holiday decorations, greeting cards, food, and other items during Christian holiday seasons, the President and First Lady lighting the "National Christmas Tree" on the Ellipse behind the White House, and many other examples too numerous to list.
Our society marks time through a Christian lens. Even the language we use in reference to the calendar reflects Christian assumptions. A few years ago, with increasing rapidity, we heard and read of the coming of the "21st Century," "The year 2000," and the dawning of "the new millennium." Among the definitions of "millennium" in the Merriam-Webster's Eleventh New Collegiate Dictionary (2003), definition #2a is: "a period of 1000 years" (p. 789).
Let us not forget, however, that the year 2000 is calculated with reference to the birth of Jesus, and it is therefore the beginning of the next Christian millennium. In fact, definition #1a in the same dictionary defines "millennium" as: "the thousand years mentioned in Revelation 20 during which holiness is to prevail and Christ is to reign on earth" (p. 789).
This fact is brought home each time we hear someone mention the date followed by "in the year of our Lord, Jesus Christ." The century markers B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (anno Domini) are clearly Christian in origin. Therefore, the year 2000 is one important milepost, though, for many religious traditions, it also marks a heightening of their invisibility.
An attempt to decenter Christian hegemony in terminology related to the marking of time is the replacing of B.C. with B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) and A.D. with C.E. (Common Era), although the re-naming does not affect the marking of time before and after a "common" (Christian) era.
Actually, this is the year 5771 on the Jewish calendar, a lunar based calendar, which began on the first day of Tishrei (the seventh month on the Hebrew calendar, or September 8 this year on the Christian Gregorian calendar). In addition, we are coming up on the year 4709 on the Chinese calendar (February 2 on the Christian Gregorian calendar). The Chinese calendar is both a lunar and solar based calendar. The New Year on the Islamic, or Hijri, calendar announces the year as 1432, which began on the evening the month of Muharram, or December 7 this year on the Christian Gregorian calendar.
The "Grinch Alert" or "Cultural Pluralism"
Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas has organized a movement to call the season what it really is, the "Christmas Season," and he asserts that businesses who display "Happy Holidays" greetings are simply stooping to "political correctness."
Jeffress has created his "Grinch List" through his website to expose businesses, who he contends are taking Christ out of Christmas.
Simply stated, the pastor is positioning Christians as the real "victims" in the current "Happy Holidays" epoch. In his effort to purge "Happy Holidays" from modern parlance, Jeffress is attempting not only to maintain, but also to fortify Christian cultural imperialism, though by all indications he has nothing to fear, since this form of hegemony has a long way to go and most certainly will not be placed on the endangered list any time soon.
We, as a society, have some choices.
We can at least commit to issues of multiculturalism, where we learn about and value other peoples and others' customs and cultures, ways of knowing, and ways of viewing the world, where we work for a true realization of the concept of "cultural pluralism," a term coined by the Jewish immigrant and sociologist of Polish and Latvian heritage, Horace Kallen, to challenge the image of the so-called "melting pot," which he considered inherently undemocratic. Kallen envisioned a United States in the image of a great symphony orchestra, not sounding in unison (the "melting pot"), but rather, one in which all the disparate cultures play in harmony and retain their unique and distinctive tones and timbres.
If we are unwilling to begin this journey, however, then as offensive as it is, Pastor Jeffress may have hit onto something. At least Jeffress is demanding honesty in expressly naming the reality and calling it what it really is, "the Christmas Season," and by voicing the greeting "Merry Christmas," rather than the transparent idiom, "Happy Holidays," created to at least give the impression of inclusivity.
An individual wishing a Christian "Merry Christmas" can be, of course, very appropriate. Can an individual wishing others "Happy Holidays" in December amount to that individual's intent to work toward inclusivity? Of course! Can an individual wishing others "Happy Holidays" in December amount to that individual's intent to decenter Christmas and Christianity? Of course!
My argument, however, focuses upon a critique of the systemic (and not necessarily individualistic) structures that promote Christian privilege and hegemony within the United States (and I would argue, many other Western countries) in the expression of "Happy Holidays" in the context of the month of December, when most cultures' major holidays do not fall in the month of December on the Gregorian calendar.
I argue that the systemic structures themselves promote Christian imperialism (hegemony), in which individuals are often unwilling and even unknowing conspirators. By wishing people "Happy Holidays" simply glosses over the Christian assumptions inherent during this particular time of the year.
Why are we not wishing and greeting people "Happy Holidays" in, say, May for example, or in September? Many cultures celebrate holidays in the equivalent of May or September on the Christian Gregorian calendar.
When someone wishes another "Happy Holidays" in December, this certainly can be very nice, well meaning, and well intentioned, but if one really wants to be sensitive and inclusive while acknowledge others' cultural and religious (or non-religious) perspectives, why not wish "Happy Holidays" during their actual important holidays? As a Jew, I would prefer someone wish me "Happy Holidays," for example, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
When we as a society use the generic greeting "Happy Holidays" in December, though in many ways intended to promote intercultural awareness and sensitivity, I would argue that this actually has the exact opposite impact by giving most of us the excuse of not doing our homework in truly investigating other cultures and other forms of celebration. When we wish others "Happy Holidays" in December, we do not have to think about others' major holidays when they actually occur.
While the intent may certainly be well meaning and heartfelt, the impact may have the opposite effect.