anatomy of a greeting

Though many in this country might wish it to be so, not everyone celebrates the birth of the Baby Jesus. Recently, I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out exactly why it troubles me so that some who celebrate Christmas complain about the use of the greeting, Happy Holidays, a noble, big-hearted phrase that has been in use for as long as I can remember and therefore is at least as old as bell-bottom jeans, Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels and probably dates back to Dickens' time. Instead of choosing to greet people in the holiday spirit, these naysayers, as I mentioned in a previous post, vow to slight non-Christians by Merry Christmasing "the crap" out of them. Doesn't sound to me like something Jesus would do.

Standing under the fingers of a hot shower, I contemplate. I do some of my best contemplating here, running my hands through my hair, filling my mouth with water, rocking back and forth under its stream warming my chilled bones. Why, why, why am I so vexed?

My thoughts take me to a time when I lived in San Francisco, having moved there from the mostly white, mostly Christian Seattle area. In San Francisco I found myself surrounded by émigrés from all over the country, the world. I lived happily amongst poor people and rich people, black people and Hispanics, career people and homeless, gay people and straights. The ad campaigns and billboards from my industry, the ones from Levi’s, The Gap and Old Navy, all read, Happy Holidays! The message, albeit with the motive of increasing sales, was inclusive, far-reaching, open-minded, compassionate and worldly. Decembers, the city was abustle with holiday cheer. Store windows, city streets and squares gleamed with Christmas trees and glittered snowflakes, twinkling Stars of David and menorahs, the vibrant black, green and red of Kwanzaa, beautiful nativity scenes, Yule logs and Santas. The holiday spirit was alive on everyone's face.

Here in Maine, an uber-white, Christian state, I am fortunate enough to live in a community near a college, both of which embrace diversity. Many of my friends, not unlike me, are either pantheistic, agnostic or atheistic. I know families with one Jewish parent, the other Christian. I’ve known folks who observe Kwanzaa, and who, like me, prefer celebrating the solstice and the promise of longer days. Perhaps some of my friends are Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu; I don’t always know and I try to avoid making assumptions. More so, to assume that our nation’s default position is—or should be—Christian is, to me, thoughtless, self-righteous and ignores the lengths to which this country has gone to preserve religious freedom.

As water runs in rivulets into the basin I also consider that these particular Christmas zealots, had they been born in another place or time, would likely have found themselves to be Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist or Heathen. Further, I consider my boy Calvin and his utter incapacity to contemplate the existence of any God much less the meaning of Christmas, its religious or secular bent. To some extent, the fact that Calvin is non-verbal and cannot understand abstractions or the meaning of particular events such as birthdays and holidays, while we ourselves wish to partake in some of the pomp and circumstance of the festive season, we treat these winter days as if they were another Thanksgiving, mostly void of presents and dogma yet full of harmony, love, generosity, home-cooked meals, Michael's bourbon eggnog and humble gratefulness for it all. We’ve been lucky enough to be included in friends’ celebrations of Hanukkah, in Christmas tree trimmings, in Black gospel nativity concerts and holiday chorals, in Christmas Eve parties and annual Christmas dinners and in gatherings for the solstice. At each I learn something I hadn’t known before, about what others cherish and put their faith in. In each I see smiles beaming from the faces of the young and the old, the black and the white, the Jewish, the Christian and the atheist. All are beautiful. All are to be celebrated, respected and honored, not scorned or held in contempt by some hateful sound bite, which I now understand, after a long hot shower, is the sanctimonious behavior at the root of what irks me so.

photo by Michael Kolster


  1. My goal in life is to marry someone who takes as beautiful pictures as your husband...

  2. The "war on Christmas" is such bullshit and always brings out the reactionary in me. Your post is a perfect antidote, and that photo is sublime.

  3. Even I as one who does celebrate the birth of Jesus am sick of all the arrogant little signs going around on internet about Christians saying, Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays. It's just plain common courtesy to say Happy Holidays to people who you know don't celebrate Christmas or if you aren't sure if they celebrate it! I don't even like to call myself a Christian. I prefer saying I'm a follower of Jesus because of the negative image that many people have formed of Christians by the intolerant, pushy, arrogant, and unloving way they act. I totally agree with you. I don't believe that is what Jesus would do either.

  4. Lovely post. you are so right. I once got chastised by my father in law for having "happy holidays" on our christmas card and all I could do was laugh at him...especially since a portion of our list includes my friends who are jewish. I also do a lot of my best thinking in the shower :)

  5. If there is a God (which I doubt, but can't know), I'm sure Calvin knows him well.