Merry Christmas

Dear Whit:

This problem has recently started, and I’d like some help before it gets worse. One person at work, “Wendy”, gets really irritated about Christmas decorations and people  saying “Merry Christmas” to others. She says that she is personally offended as someone who does not celebrate Christmas.

Christmas decorations make me feel festive and generally put me in a good mood. As much as I don’t want to offend this person (or anyone), I really believe that holiday cheer is something that we could do with, especially at a hectic time of year. What should I say to her?

Deck the Halls Kind of Person 

Dear Deck:

As someone who enjoys the trappings of Christmas but doesn’t want to inflict it on people who don’t, I can sympathize with your not wanting to offend this person or anybody else. At the same time, I agree with you that if Christmas can make you and other people happy as well as more tolerant of and charitable toward each other, if only for the holiday season, then observing it should be regarded as an overall benefit.

Here is what I suggest: Approach Wendy privately and respectfully to find out what she as your co-worker objects to about Christmas decorations at work.  Ask her if she objects to all decorations or just those at work?). You don’t say whether she is a person with whom you are friendly or whether she tends to be an argumentative person in general. Regardless, if you go to her to genuinely find out what she thinks instead of trying to change her mind, you might discover that you and she have some common ground.

To assuage her opposition, you could point out that most of what is publically displayed, e.g., lights, trees, holly, wreaths, goes back to pagan times. The rest of secular Christmas: Santa, the elves, the reindeer, is more commercial than some people would like (a complaint that has been made for over 100 years in the U.S.) but can’t be construed as religious. And seriously, “Merry Christmas” has about as much “Christ” in it as “Happy Holiday” has “holy” in it.

Christmas isn’t as Christian as one might expect either. When I was younger, the uncle of a friend of mine who was a rabbi told us that many Christmas carols came from Jewish canticles. Even more surprisingly, he had a tree because, as he said, “It was American.” That sentiment might seem quaint now but does make a point that Christmas is a tradition that can bind us all together as members of our country as well as members of humanity.

When Christmas decorations and salutations pull us apart rather than bring us together, we need to remember that sharing the same rituals, customs, and myths is just as important as accepting different ones. To echo Rodney King’s plea to “all get along,” I believe that we have to remember the intention when people put up Christmas ornaments or wish others “Merry Christmas.”

Without a doubt, Christmas is religious to some people, but that should reflect a personal celebration of the holiday. Those who see Christmas as primarily Christian should remember that many traditions we now consider as part of Christmas were pagan and adopted by early Christians to help their new religion gain acceptance by pagan skeptics. The private and the public can be separate just as the public Easter, reflected in bunnies, colored eggs, and jelly beans, is distinct from the private Easter and the resurrection of Jesus.

Can we keep the two separate? I think we can if we try to understand one another, even if we occasionally make mistakes. When we do, we, or in this case, you must be quick to apologize and explain how you are simply trying to spread good cheer.

Levity can go a long way to ease tension. Here is humorous illustration: My wife and I have a line that we use to each other when we have made a mistake, unintentionally offended, or suspect that we haven’t been clear to the other. It comes from an exchange that I had with my 22-year-old daughter when she was about 7, playing with her Playskool figures. After hearing her make one of them say, “Daddy” to another, I responded, “Yes, Charlotte?”(as if she were speaking to me) Immediately recognizing that I was also “playing,” she replied, “I was talking to the toy Daddy.”  My wife’s and my version has evolved into “I was talking about the toy [whatever].”

So, to answer your question, I reiterate: Talk to your co-worker non-judgmentally about the decorations in the office. Then, wish her and others a  “Merry Christmas” respectfully and joyfully but also carefully so that those like Wendy who might take offense can understand that we are speaking not of the exclusionary, personal Christmas but the inclusive, secular Christmas or, as my 7-year-old daughter might have put it, “the toy Christmas.”

Got questions about life? Love? Parenting? Work? Write to Whit’s End, an advice column by local husband, father, teacher, coach, former executive and former Marine Corps officer Al Whitaker.  Send your questions to

4 replies on “Managing the “Merry Christmas” Misdeed”

  1. I think that what offends people is not the signs and symbols of Christmas as much as the assumption by some Christmas-celebrating people that others are just like them. It used to be that people could safely assume that most people they ran into shared cultural backgrounds with them. Now that things are more diverse, some throwbacks still set up their lives to insure that this remains the case, by joining clubs, choosing schools, and doing other things to make sure they rarely meet anyone that someone they already know doesn’t already know. These people do themselves a disservice by walling themselves off from getting to understand different viewpoints. I know that, when I personally shrink from saying “Merry Christmas,” it’s because I am afraid of seeming like one of them.

  2. Thanks, In The Mix, for summarizing the dilemma. The reason that we need traditions and rituals even more now to connect us is “that things are so diverse.” The people that you describe are slowly disappearing and not being replaced. As that trend continues, perhaps we can build up new associations with familiar practices that can make us all feel more “in this together.”

  3. I am not Christian, and I resent the fact that people assume that we all have the same backgrounds and faiths, especially in the office. I was expected to take part in an office talent show that involved singing Christmas songs, and I felt this was very inappropriate. Of course I didn’t want to seem like a spoilsport, but I also didn’t want to stand up and pretend to believe in a holiday that to me seems trivial and make-believe. But I did so anyway because I was afraid to incur my boss’s and colleagues’ displeasure. I don’t care what holidays people celebrate. But I don’t expect others to celebrate the religious occasions I consider important, so I wish they would return the favor.

    1. Leave Me Out, you seem to be making the same kind of mistake that others make when they confuse the secular, public Christmas celebration with the personal, religious one. You don’t say what you had to do, but if any of the company parties that I’ve attended or heard about in today’s world are representative, religious references are rigorously omitted. One person I know vigorously objected to the religiosity of Jingle Bells, which not only contains no reference to Christmas but actually was written for Thanksgiving. As a Jewish friend of mine who is very serious about his religion put it, “Some people are just looking to be offended.”

Comments are closed.