Monday, January 23, 2012

In Defense of "Happy Holidays"

As a "word guy" I am annoyed by a lot of things people say and I have referenced a few of them on H&R. And, like a lot of you, I'm turned off by "doublespeak" and jargon and I am suspicious of anything that is considered "politically correct," not only because being politically correct seems cowardly (even though it is often kind, though more often beneficial to the speaker), but because I have learned that whatever politically correct word or phrase one picks, someone is bound to figure out a way to be offended by it; and, even if a politically correct statement is okay today, it might not be okay tomorrow.

(Think of the progress from that most atrocious of n-words (from the corrupted word "negro") to the gentler "colored" to the proudly proclaimed "black" and, eventually, to the "politicaly correct" "African American" -- a phrase, by the way, that a black college student of mine one voiced violent objection to: "If I hear one more person in this room refer to black people as African Americans, I'm going to flip." His objection was that he was black, but of West-Indian descent and that calling him African American was simply incorrect and that is was also a default disregarding of his culture. He saw, he said, no more problem being referred to as "the black guy" than he would imagine a ginger person should have with being called "the red-haired guy.")

There are cases, though, in which what people label as politically correct is the most efficient way to say something. Language, after all, should be efficient, don't you agree?

With this in mind, I'm going to defend the phrase "Happy Holidays." (This is obviously a post I have been meaning to get to for awhile.)

Mighty George
All of the billboards and lawn-signs notwithstanding ("I miss hearing you say 'Merry Christmas'" -- Jesus), it makes sense to say "Happy Holidays" during the silly season in diverse cultural places. It's just efficient. If I don't know your beliefs, I say "Happy Holidays." It is also efficient because there are many holidays being referred to at once, sometimes, not just because of varied religious beliefs but because New Year's Day follows hard upon Christmas.
(Come to think of it, with all of these holidays in a cluster, maybe we should just say: "Don't get too fat!")

So, can we get off of it, with that one? Saying "Happy Holidays" doesn't mean we need to start a campaign to put Christ back in Christmas. (I always thought it a was a little presumptuous to think he needed our help anyway. We now have a great decoration that came from my parents' house: Santa bowing at the cradle of Jesus, hat in hand, head bowed. That's the schizzle.) Saying Happy Holidays acknowledges the beliefs of our friends everywhere -- that theirs might be run just as deeply in their hearts as our do in our own.

That said, it is nice to make an effort. If you know your friend is Episcopalian, say "Merry Christmas," for Pete's sake. If you know he is Jewish, say "Happy Hanukkah." This is both efficient and respectful. Let's not try to homogenize Faith.

It may be cozy for some blinder-wearing Christians to pretend that everyone thinks the same way they do. It is nice, I admit, to say "Merry Christmas," unguardedly, to my students and co-workers in the Catholic school in which I teach. But our need to be comfortable shouldn't be shoved down everyone else's throats. (There's a motif sounding in solo but drawn from a bigger symphony, eh?)

I teach my writing students that written communication should be clear, brief and precise (a phrase stolen from my former professor, Tim Martin). And it's just not always simple; so, we need to think things over before speaking. (Shoulders slump across the globe. It's a lot of work, indeed, but, maybe, worth it.)

For instance, to me, there is nothing more pretentious than a teacher who won't refer to himself as a teacher, but insists on being called "an educator." "Teacher" is a great word. Why shy away from it? Not Latin or Greek enough to give it a stuffy luster? It is all about the use and the purpose, though. I often refer to myself as a teacher, but, strictly speaking, I should call myself an educator because I don't just teach; I'm also an assistant academics principal. (Of course, for me, using "teacher' is my way of reflecting where my heart really is.)

I know it stinks to have to think about what we say beforehand, but it will eliminate a lot of worthless posturing and it will save room on billboards for shoe ads. There simply are not enough shoe ads on billboards, if you ask me.

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