Respecting others and being tolerant of everyone's beliefs does not mean ignoring the obvious. It's foolish to mandate the use of bland platitudes like "happy holidays" when the person delivering the line so clearly means "merry Christmas."
The controversy over President George W. Bush using the term "happy holidays" on the White House Christmas card has ignited this silly debate. The right wing wants the president to acknowledge the specific holiday he wants you to be happy on and the left wants religious people to somehow separate those beliefs from their public lives.
Perhaps the President's card was the victim of an overzealous effort at political correctness or maybe he wanted the people reading it to enjoy Christmas, the New Year, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or whatever holidays they might be observing. Reading too much into it and arguing over who should be offended makes this pleasant display of presidential cheer an ugly political tool.
Maintaining an enlightened society where citizens embrace their differences does not require neutering the English language. Wishing someone a "merry Christmas" is not a religious statement any more than telling him or her to have a "happy Chanukah" or a "joyous Kwanza" would be. These holidays all have a place on the United States' calendar and suggesting someone enjoy that day does not imply that they should observe the holiday in a religious way.
Attempting to eliminate the term "merry Christmas" under the guise of separating church and state makes as much sense as banning elected officials from saying "God bless you" when someone sneezes. There needs to be a clear division between government and religion. But, we must not overreact and should recognize that there's a major difference between installing a national faith and offering a traditional greeting.
Saying "merry Christmas" makes no particular statement on faith or religion. It's as meaningful as asking someone "what's up?" when you don't particularly care to hear the answer.
Hypersensitivity to language leaves you no room to not be offended. Anyone looking to be slighted can easily find a way to get himself angry. Some of us get mad when God gets mentioned too much and some of us are angered by any mention at all.
If we all censor ourselves so as not to offend anyone, we'll be left with precious little to say to each other. Delivering a harmless "good morning" will enrage people who woke up on the wrong side of the bed and so many meaningless phrases spoken mostly out of courtesy will become off-limits.
As a non-Christian, I can grow tired of the carols endlessly looping at every store I go to and the fact that crowds of shoppers makes entering those same stores a lot less pleasant. I'm not, however, bothered by the expression of joy my Christian friends, neighbors and wife express over their holiday.
If their exuberance results in a few people wishing me a "merry Christmas" instead of a "happy Chanukah," then it's best for me to accept their wishes in the spirit they were intended. The holidays, whichever ones you happen to celebrate, should bring happiness to you and your loved ones. We can't let petty battles over how we word our differences to overshadow that no matter what we believe, we all want peace, love and joy for our fellow man.
Daniel B. Kline is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at his blog, www.thingseveryguy.com.