It’s the Holiday Season. Or if you’re talking to the Christians who like to angrily dominate the comment sections of the internet, it’s “Merry Christmas! It’s Christmas, okay? Not ‘Holidays,’ Christmas. Stop pushing your PC agenda to squash my holiday and discriminate against me!”
Surely we’ve all either engaged in or been a spectator in the “Merry Christmas!” as a greeting debacle. It becomes a point of contention each holiday season, with a subset of vocal Christians demanding that their holiday tradition not be attacked through some people’s use of “Happy Holidays”—a more inclusive seasonal greeting. After all, people of many religions and ethnicities celebrate holiday traditions during December, including Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Yule.
The whole “don’t silence or erase me” tantrum isn’t new or original. It has been used by other privileged groups to co-opt a marginalized stance where there isn’t one. Trans-exclusionary feminists use it as a way to exclude trans and GNC people from their spaces, and white folks use the phrase “All Lives Matter” as a way to dismiss Black people’s very legitimate concerns and re-center the conversation around themselves.
It’s important for people to understand that Christians in the United States and the Western hemisphere are absolutely a privileged group. Throughout the year, their religion is treated as the cultural norm, and during the holidays, this norm and the benefits that come with it are heightened.
On Everyday Feminism, Sian Ferguson offers this succinct definition of privilege, calling it “a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.”
Christian Privilege During the Holidays
The benefits that come with being a Christian over the Holidays are contained within the normalization of the Christian traditions and the inherent othering of everything else. Think about it. The Christmas tradition is dominantly represented basically everywhere from about mid-November through the New Year. The music that is played on the radio and in retail shopping spaces reflects that.
Christmas is the default celebration for office parties and school celebrations and performances. And Christmas is the only holiday considered when centering the weeks-long holiday school break. Jewish and pagan families must make special accommodations with their schools to celebrate their own traditions with their kids.
Santa sits in malls across the country, Christmas decorations fill our city streets and parks and government buildings, and Christmas-related decorations dominate about 99% of retail shelving space. Those celebrating Hanukkah or other religious holidays during December are generally left to seek out their decorations online.
Privilege Isn’t Bad, It Just Exists
Just like other privileges (white privilege or male privilege for example), acknowledging that a privilege exists or that one benefits from is not, in itself, a bad thing. It doesn’t make the person who benefits from that privilege a bad person. It doesn’t even vilify the dominant culture. It merely brings to light what benefits and deficits actually exist in a culture or system.
Discussing the privilege inherent in Western Christianity doesn’t, in any way, discount Christianity or Christmas. It merely offers a fair perspective of who holds the most privilege based on their belief systems. Though it’s not an oppression contest, understanding where one stands in the hierarchy of privilege is important. And in the case of Christians and Christmas, the long-standing narrative has often been that Christians are “persecuted.”
Christians and the Narrative of Persecution
I grew up in Evangelical Christianity and was immersed in the religion well into adulthood. Something that was consistently taught to me was that Christians are oppressed. The root of this teaching comes from scriptures, where Hebrews (read: Jews) and the prophets (read: justice-seeking activists) were persecuted by oppressive governments. Later, those who followed the teachings of Christ (also a political activist) were oppressed by their governments.
New Testament teachings repeatedly assert that Christians, like the martyrs who came before them, will be persecuted. The context and historical perspective of these writings, though, can’t be ignored, nor can they be extrapolated to speak across time and space. They especially can’t be expected to literally apply to a culture removed by thousands of years and miles.
The marginalization discussed in Christian texts surely isn’t speaking of contemporary Western Christianity, which has become the dominant culture’s religion, one that is honored and even pulled upon as a tenet under which the United States was founded. Especially when that very religion has evolved to be the source of some of the very persecution of which it claims to be victim.
Victim or Perpetrator
What I’m saying is you can’t really be a victim of religious persecution when your city hall holds prayers based on your religion as the default invocations. And you can’t claim religious oppression when your religious beliefs are often used to shame and terrorize women on their way to trying to obtain healthcare. And you can’t claim that you’re the oppressed because the Starbucks cup had a pagan goddess on it when the the historical context is that is was your religion that actively co-opted Yule from pagans in order to stomp out the traditions of those particular religions.
There’s just a lot of irony in crying “persecution” when adherents to the religion not only benefit from the cultural norms of that religion but also often use it as an excuse to keep others from enjoying the full freedoms that they themselves enjoy.
From blockading equal rights and provisions for the LGBTQ community, to obstructing reproductive healthcare access, to bopping people over the head with the “Merry Christmas” stick, it’s hard to understand where Christian persecution actually lies.
The Christian whining about persecution at Christmas reminds me of the satirical Bo Burnham song, “Straight, White Man,” featured in his newest Netflix special, “Get Happy.” The whole song is basically a hilarious mock-fest about the “trials and tribulations” that come with being a straight, white man. The line that gets the most nods and laughs is, “We used to have all the money and land, and we still do, but it’s not as fun now,” which is sort of exactly what the Christians as martyrs narrative seems like at this point.
Of course there will be people who will read this and wish for a qualifier, like “some Christians” because not all Christians behave in this way, and of course there are Christians who are aware and inclusive in their beliefs.
However, it’s important to acknowledge the harm in using such qualifiers when talking about privileged groups. We hear this come up often in other privileged spaces. For instance, “not all men” and “not all white people” are often used to deflect personal blame for culture-wide or system-wide injustices. However, shifting the focus from the macro to the micro isn’t just unproductive—it’s a defense mechanism used to keep from taking an honest look at one’s own privilege and the benefits inherent in said privilege.
We don’t need to use caveats when we talk about this. The fact that some Christians aren’t assholes who run around sneering “Merry Christmas” at everyone is pretty irrelevant in a discussion of the benefits that come along with being Christian during the holidays.
And it also doesn’t really matter if you’re not personally an asshole when lots of people who share your core beliefs are. It’s important to be able to recognize that because the onus is mostly going to be on Christians to call other Christians in.
The Importance of Inclusion
Amanda is a practicing Christian friend of mine. She says, “I believe one has to be exposed to people of different beliefs and backgrounds and respect the beliefs, traditions, and backgrounds of others in order to start tearing down that Christian privilege that is cemented in one’s worldview.” Amanda tells me that she makes a concerted effort to check herself and her privilege and word choices around the holidays.
Surrounding ourselves with people who share our beliefs means that we’re going to behave in ways that aren’t inclusive. We’re going to do things that inadvertently (and probably unintentionally) harm other people. It’s important for all of us to be aware of our choices.
There’s an understanding in justice circles that the emotional labor of educating privileged folks should be mostly hoisted by fellow privileged folks. White people should take the burden calling in fellow white people, cis men should call in their peers, and so on. This also holds true for progressive Christians who encounter fellow believers who are touting a persecution complex.
It can be exhausting to do the emotional labor of educating people about their privilege, but think about this. How much more exhausting is it for the people who are directly and routinely offended by insensitive comments to not only name it but also potentially endure emotional and verbal abuse for doing so? Moreover, people tend to be more receptive to feedback from someone who already shares their worldview and who doesn’t have as much emotional skin in the game.
So, what can you do to actively relieve the burden of non-Christians this Holiday season?
1. Commit to checking yourself and changing your language.
My friend, Amanda, says that she mentally bangs herself on the head when she catches herself saying “Merry Christmas” to people she doesn’t know. She’s actively challenging herself in her awareness and desire to be inclusive. Changing our language can be hard, and we all are at different points on the learning curve.
It took the sometimes embarrassing experience of people calling me in on things like ableist language and gender-inclusive language for me to start learning about different ways that I was inadvertently injuring people and learn new ways that I’d be less likely to. I still sometimes mess up; we all do. It’s okay. Just keep recommitting and keep trying.
2. Speak up.
When you hear someone saying “happy holidays is too PC,” take a moment to tell them why insisting on shoving “merry Christmas” down people’s throats can be harmful. If you hear Islamophobic rhetoric ramping up, call it out.
Talk to your progressive Christian friends, too, and challenge them to speak up. Invite folks in your community who have a platform (e.g., your pastor) to use that space to challenge folks to be inclusive and to call in those who aren’t. In fact, maybe ask your pastor if they might even be willing to devote a sermon (or a series) to it.
We don’t have to share beliefs or traditions, but we can honor one another by simply acknowledging those beliefs and traditions.
The cool thing about being inclusive is that no one is left out. When we say things like “people” instead of “women,” women are included because they are people, but so are men and nonbinary folks. When we say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” Christmas is included because Christmas is a holiday, but so are Hanukkah, the Solstice, Kwanzaa, and all other seasonal holidays.
Everyone gets a place at the table in an inclusive society. “Happy Holidays” hurts no one, and it actively benefits those who otherwise have their traditions and beliefs routinely excluded.