Opinion The war on ‘Happy Holidays’ isn’t about Christmas

(Ellen Weinstein for The Washington Post)

When I wish strangers “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” it’s a battle cry.

I’m not waging a war on Christmas. I like Christmas. But I am declaring my allegiance to one idea of America that opposes another: inclusive vs. exclusive.

In one recent skirmish, residents of exclusive America crowded a Tuscumbia, Ala., City Council meeting to protest a forthcoming Festival of Yule, which its organizer designed, she said, “for everyone to enjoy this time of year that is winter’s solstice and also an awareness of the origins of this holiday season.”

Opponents declared it, rather, “a sort of twisted anti-Christmas celebration” that threatened the city and the children. Speaker after speaker denounced the festival as a perversion of a holiday that was supposed to honor Jesus Christ, not the devilish Krampus.

Toward the end of the public comment period, a lone voice politely ventured, “I’m not sure that it’s the City Council’s job to enforce Christianity,” and offered advice for citizens offended by the Festival of Yule: “If you don’t agree with it, you don’t have to show up.”

Follow Kate Cohen's opinionsFollow

Everyone ignored this suggestion. Clearly the problem wasn’t that they would be forced to attend or even that the festival replaced the traditional Christian one; the 12th annual It’s a Dickens Christmas Y’all would occur the following week. The problem was the very idea of inclusion.

A similar dynamic was at work in August, when Cracker Barrel added plant-based sausage to its menu, sparking outrage among patrons furious that the restaurant chain would no longer be serving pork.

Oops, no, I got that wrong — the pork was staying. The issue was that among the 11 “meat options” would be a single choice for people who don’t eat meat.

Possibly a certain segment of Cracker Barrel diners feels nostalgic for the good old days before vegans and legally enforced nondiscrimination policies. Or possibly Impossible sausage is a sign of change, and some people don’t like change.

Cracker Barrel faces blowback after adding Impossible sausage to menu

But I think exclusive America was simply incensed that, even at Cracker Barrel, inclusive America was winning.

Inclusive America recently thrilled to videos of Black girls watching the preview to the live-action “The Little Mermaid” with Halle Bailey, a Black actor, as Ariel. Exclusive America flooded YouTube with negative comments and argued that the mythical girlfish should be White because mermaids are European, the original story is Danish, and everyone’s childhoods will be retroactively ruined, since Disney will be destroying all copies of the animated 1989 version.

Oh — sorry — no, it won’t. Our cultural heritage will henceforth include both the Black Ariel and the White one. But that’s cold comfort to exclusive America, because central to its worldview is the notion that inclusion is incursion.

Perspective by Brooke Newman: The white nostalgia fueling the ‘Little Mermaid’ backlash

Rewriting the reflexive December salutation to include people who might not be celebrating Christmas, putting a solstice festival on a town’s event calendar, expanding the range of ethnicities represented in children’s movies, adding more choices to breakfast menus — all of it poses some sort of vague, unstated threat.

Or stated, but untrue. Like the claim that same-sex marriage weakens traditional marriage. Or that including trans men in the discourse about abortion erases women. Or that teachers using gender-inclusive language or acknowledging the existence of same-sex parents constitute indoctrination.

People can still marry partners of the opposite sex. They can still speak of pregnant women and girls, and about mommies and daddies. No one is forcing anyone to choose an “unspecified” gender on their passport forms, although the option has been available since April. You can still identify yourself as “male” or “female.”

I get that it’s destabilizing to lose your monopoly on the culture — or to realize you never had it to begin with. To be informed by the Tuscumbia events calendar that the particular kind of Christmas you’ve celebrated your whole life is not the winter holiday, but a winter holiday.

You can still celebrate however you want, though. When inclusion wins, nobody actually loses.

For the record, I like the expression “Merry Christmas” better than “Happy Holidays,” which reminds me of cheap cards and officialdom. It’s the bored mantra of the mall. Inclusive language can be blah. “Spouse” and “pregnant person” and “Happy Holidays” make blurrier images in my head than “husband” or “woman” or “Merry Christmas.”

But that’s the point: to blur our shared imagery, to leave open the possibilities so that schools, doctors, parents and, most important, the law are less likely to look at a pregnant trans man or a gay couple or a nonbinary child or a Jew and think they don’t fit the picture.

As Lyz Lenz wrote about adding more inclusive language to her book “Belabored,” “If I can crack a door open in a conversation and let another person in, why wouldn’t I?”

Why wouldn’t we?

So Happy Holidays, inclusive America. And to exclusive America? Happy Holidays to you, too.