Journalist and Human Rights Advocate

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Is it OK to say Merry Christmas? Yes, the Toronto Star

First, let’s get one thing straight: There is no war on Christmas.

A recent survey in the United States found that whether or not people care about saying “happy holidays” or “Merry Christmas” often depends on their political leanings. If you guessed that those who identify as Republican are those with their stockings in a knot over what people say around this time of year, you’re right.

“Diluting religious celebration harms all of us because we should all be able to share who we are and what we believe in a free and open society,” writes Amira Elghawaby. “In fact, a movement toward promoting religious literacy in Canada is long overdue.”  (DREAMSTIME)

“The issue of ‘War on Christmas’ seems like asymmetrical warfare, in that only one side seems to be fighting it,” remarked pollster Dan Cox.

For everyone else, the notion that saying “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is part of a dark plot to rid the world of Christian references is, of course, ludicrous. That being said, a 2014 poll by Angus Reid in this country found that over 80 per cent of Canadians prefer to call this time of year “Christmas,” over the more generic “holiday seasons.” I happen to be one of them, though I assure you I am most certainly not a Republican sympathizer.

On the contrary, I’m for saying “Merry Christmas” precisely because I believe so wholeheartedly in promoting inclusive communities. Even while some people choose to avoid referencing the underlying reason we are all currently surrounded by bright lights, endless treats and ugly sweaters, saying “happy holidays” is not a panacea to ensuring that everyone feels included.

Multiculturalism is about embracing our diversity, not making it invisible. That includes Christian practice. Sure, many of our institutions are already strongly influenced by “residual Christianity” which, at times, can advantage Christian communities over others. And yes, that can potentially lead to discrimination — “systemic faithism” — as described by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

This legacy can feel overpowering at times, especially when there are so many other religious communities here, and particularly when considering how Indigenous communities were at one time even outlawed from practicing their spirituality.

Yet denying the sacredness of this time of year for those who observe Christmas will not correct any of that. A more meaningful gesture, for instance, would be to designate June 21 a statutory holiday so that we can collectively celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day. 

At a more basic level, employers, managers, and educators could always be more mindful of various faith traditions so as not to organize meetings or events during sacred occasions, in addition to encouraging feedback around how to celebrate together (a “holiday” party at a pub isn’t necessarily more inclusive than a Christmas party at a restaurant).

Diluting religious celebration harms all of us because we should all be able to share who we are and what we believe in a free and open society. In fact, a movement toward promoting religious literacy in Canada is long overdue.

“Too often, we speak about religion as though it’s somehow over here,” reflected Diane M. Moore, founder and director of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School, during a panel discussion earlier this year.

Moore works with educators to promote critical thinking about the broad influence of religious belief and practice on the whole of society. She has developed a framework for teachers to guide students on a journey of learning intended to serve them well as they interact with people of all backgrounds.

On a recent episode of CBC Radio’s Q, singer Michael Bublé, explained how asking his children to pray for him before a performance brought him a great sense of peace. Many people find solace in religious belief; 60 per cent of Canadians describe themselves as either privately faithful or religiously committed.

As one Ottawa Catholic school choir even discovered a few years ago, combining a Muslim song into the annual Christmas Concert sent a strong message of welcome just as countries around the world were shutting their borders to Syrians fleeing war.

It’s not always going to be easy to encourage celebration, even acknowledgement, of religion, especially as there are those who deliberately fuel divisions.

We can resist those efforts by being thoughtful toward the various sacred moments our neighbours, colleagues, and friends are marking in their own special ways.

Opposing view: Is it OK to say Merry Christmas? No

Amira Elghawaby