Oct 302011
 

Ah, Christmas! A time for family, friends, faith, and almost limitless festivities! It’s a wonderful time of the year. It warms my heart to wish everyone, “Merry Christmas.” Better yet…I can’t help but smile when someone extends the same greeting to me.

As this Christmas season commenced, I began to read posts and articles opining that it should be “okay” to extend Christmas greetings to others. I’ve always wondered about the reasoning behind such writings because, of course, our First Amendment guarantees us the right of free speech.

The First Amendment of the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.” Although Christmas can be celebrated as either a religious or secular event, it would seem that each individual citizen has the right to speak freely, as well as to practice the religion of his or her choice.  I would think that should be the end of the discussion. Yet, in the era of throwing individual liberty under the bus, I notice that even I have begun to think twice about wishing anyone anything unless I know what religious belief system that person follows. 

The phrase “Happy Holidays” is thought to be a more inclusive greeting, yet I find it bland. It celebrates little, if anything, in particular just as we, as a nation, are giving increasing emphasis to holidays and events with no religious underpinnings at all. I was completely caught off guard, while researching my recent article about Thanksgiving, to learn that many schools no longer educate children as to the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday because of its religious undertones, as well as its potential to “offend” one of the students. The celebration of Christmas, another federal holiday, has also been watered down or eliminated from many public schools. Christmas programs have become holiday programs, classroom parties reference only winter themes, or perhaps there is no celebration before the winter recess at all.

I’m not sure how it has happened, but merely extending the greeting “Merry Christmas” to strangers on the street has become a bit controversial. How is it possible that a greeting, which is connected to a holiday celebrated by so many of my fellow citizens, could have become contentious?  Perhaps more importantly, how could my individual liberty, as well as my First Amendment right, have become infringed upon by political correctness run amuck?  America has become a nation which overzealously attends to the cultural, ethnic, and racial differences that exist between segments of the population. While the traditional holidays celebrated by Americans since the birth of our country are minimized or shunned, great effort is put forth toward acknowledging some holidays heretofore celebrated elsewhere and others with little purpose other than to promote sales in stores. For example, consider the increasing emphasis on Halloween in schools and on television, while Thanksgiving is slowly fading from view. Also, how many of us have been to a winter holiday party at a public school where parents and teachers feel uncomfortable even mentioning Santa (let alone Jesus), but multiple centers at the same party are devoted to educating children about other holidays which are celebrated during  the winter season.  It seems that while we stridently seek to accommodate patterns embraced by different cultural and ethnic groups, we are somehow expected to turn a blind eye to anything that remotely involves an individual’s religious beliefs, particularly if that person is a Christian. I am sorry to say that somehow a nation which once embraced individual freedom and liberty has become a nation where the recognition of diversity, marginalization of common customs, and minimization of religious beliefs is of the upmost importance.

Why has this happened? Let me suggest a few of my own ideas. George Herbert Mead, a prominent social psychologist at the turn of the 20th century, created a theory of social development that is somewhat akin to Freud’s id, ego, and superego. Mead observed children playing games and noted how various aspects of socialization evolved as a result of their experiences. He suggested what factors impact the development of the “self,” and how children gain the ability to understand another person’s perspective. He also suggested that eventually children develops “the generalized other” which enables them to understand, predict, and respond to all the different members of a group. A classic example of this development comes from comparing children of different ages who play baseball. A young child who is on a t-ball team interacts with the other players very differently from an older child who is more likely to anticipate and fluidly adjust to changes in the game and the other members on his or her team. Children go on to develop a more global generalized other after being exposed to different social groups at home, in school, and in the community. As they evolve, they internalize the norms, customs, and laws of the society as a whole. If you find yourself unable to pass a red traffic light at 3:00 a.m., even though your unobstructed view indicates there are no other vehicles in the vicinity, Mead’s theory would suggest that the generalized other internalized within you is prompting you to follow the rules rather than break the law.  

How, might you ask, do Mead’s ideas relate to whether or not you wish others a “Merry Christmas?” Well, it has become increasingly popular during the past century to challenge the traditional structures, values, and ideas which have been common place in America since our nation’s founding.  In no small part, this has been driven by a pattern of divergent thinking which is taught in our universities. The emergence of this type of thought can be partially credited to a group of Marxist intellectuals who founded the Institute of Social Research at Frankfurt University in 1923. They combined the ideas of Marx and Freud to develop a philosophy known as Critical Theory. Many of the members of this group fled to the United States after the rise of the Nazi party and began to teach in American universities. Consistent with its name, this theory criticizes concepts such as authority, tradition, conservatism, capitalism, and ethnocentrism. It also criticizes many traditional elements of our society including the family, patriotism, and Christianity. Critical theorists advocate that traditional social structures should be challenged and discarded. Their ideas became increasingly popular in conjunction with the events of the 1960’s.

It is out of this mindset that political correctness developed. Although there are no “thought police” as predicted in George Orwell’s 1984, we have become a nation of self-censoring individuals who choose not speak out of fear of offending someone. Freedom of speech has been transformed into freedom of speech so long as what is said will not upset or insult various segments of the population.  While Congress has passed no law regarding this issue, I wonder if the generalized other which we have internalized has increasingly discouraged us from wishing those in our midst a “Merry Christmas.” As our thoughts have changed, our behavior has followed suit. In the past, we might have offered Christmas greetings, and then modified our statement upon learning that the recipient did not celebrate Christmas. At present, we are more likely to pass others by without extending any salutation because it avoids to possibility of conflict altogether.  It would then be a logical assumption that we also sanitize statements that we might make concerning a variety of subjects, including our common culture and heritage, for fear of being viewed as insensitive, thoughtless, or confrontational.

Could it be that my reluctance to wish everyone around me a “Merry Christmas” is the internalization of an unspoken societal norm?  Am I more likely to wish a stranger “Happy Holidays” in order to avoid conflict which might arise from my greeting? If this is the case, then I can choose to take action and change my behavior starting today. If I change one particular behavior, eventually my interactional patterns with others on a day-to-day basis will change as well. Therefore, it is my resolve to use the greeting “Merry Christmas” unless I specifically know that the recipient of the greeting celebrates a different holiday. If the recipient is somehow offended, I will take the time to learn about what he or she celebrates during the winter season. I will then extend that person a happy, merry, or joyous wish rather than the all encompassing salutation of “Happy Holidays.” In light of my decision, I created a series of buttons that say, “I Welcome Christmas Greetings.” I am going to wear one of them this holiday season. It will signal others that I celebrate Christmas and encourage them to wish me “Merry Christmas” as well.

You may not think that one woman wearing a button can make a difference. Maybe not, but I can make a difference if others join me. If you, and other like-minded people, make your own button, we as a collective body can make a difference. Please join me this Christmas season in spreading good cheer. Wear a button. Tell everyone you know that you welcome Christmas greetings. Wish everyone around you “Merry Christmas.” If someone objects, then inquire as to what holiday is celebrated in his or her home, and what words you can use to extend holiday greetings to that person.  

If you celebrate Christmas, and want others to extend Christmas greetings to you, I suggest you make your own button. You can also obtain one of my buttons by visiting uncommoncourtesy.com,  uncommoncourtesy.com, or bingoforchristmas.com and clicking on the “I Welcome Christmas Greetings” button near the top of the page. If you see me on the street, please feel free to wish me “Merry Christmas,” and I will respond in kind. No matter what holiday you and your family celebrate this season, I hope it is merry, happy, joyous, festive, and wonderful!

Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.

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