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'Merry Christmas' vs. 'Happy Holidays': More Than a Simple Choice of Words

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: the paradox of a social greeting designed not to offend anyone that, by its very design, offends some people.

RS: Next Sunday, most Americans will celebrate Christmas. This year, by coincidence, Sunday is also the first night of Hanukkah, a minor festival in Judaism. And the next day is the start of Kwanzaa, a seasonal African-American celebration.

AA: As America has grown more diverse -- in fact, experts see more Muslims than Jews in its future -- the traditional greeting "Merry Christmas" is often replaced with "Happy Holidays." Many "Christmas trees" are now "holiday trees." The reasoning goes that "Happy Holidays" is all-inclusive: it can also include the New Year.

RS: But what some people see as cultural sensitivity looks to others like nothing more than political correctness gone wild.

The Global Language Monitor is a California company that tracks the use of language on the Internet and in the media. Its president, Paul J.J. Payack, says his small staff has been following the debate over "Merry Christmas" vs. "Happy Holidays" all the way to Washington.

PAUL PAYACK: "The main thing in the capital is Bush's Christmas cards, OK? He sent out his Christmas cards and they say "Happy Holidays" all over them. And people are offended because they think it's giving in to political correctness. On the other hand, he's always said 'Happy Holidays' on his Christmas cards.

"And if you go back through the history of presidential Christmas cards, [which] really started with John Kennedy -- John Kennedy actually only sent out a few thousand, and he had his staff demarcate between those who celebrate Christmas and those that celebrate Hanukkah. Now the president sends out 1.4 million cards! [laughter]"

RS: "So what's the deal here?"

PAUL PAYACK: "What we're finding is that there's, it's kind of like there's a backlash where people are trying to say 'Merry Christmas' where they normally might say 'Happy Holidays,' because they see it as what's called the 'war against Christmas,' as some of the commentators are calling it. And there's not really a war against Christmas, but it's the idea that many major companies just take the name Christmas out of everything.

"OK, in Boston, this was an interesting one, that a farmer, a tree farmer in Nova Scotia, donated this large, magnificent tree as the Christmas tree for the Boston Common. So the mayor sends out something that says, we're going to have a holiday tree-lighting ceremony. Well, people went berserk, and the fellow that donated the tree said, I want it back if it's not a Christmas tree. It's not a holiday tree, it's a Christmas tree."

AA: "So what happened?"

PAUL PAYACK: "Well, they changed it back to Christmas tree."

AA: Which probably made our next guest happy. Joseph Farah hosts a radio talk show and is editor of For the past few years he's gotten Christmas cards from the president. We asked him his reaction to this year's greeting.

JOSEPH FARAH: "Well, it looked like the cards from the previous three years that I saw. It was a 'Happy Holidays' message, and I opened it, looked at it briefly for about five seconds, and put it in the garbage."

AA: "Because it didn't use the word Christmas."

JOSEPH FARAH: "Yep. I know a lot of people say -- why would, I mean he's wishing you a happy holiday, what's wrong with that? And what's wrong with it is, that 96 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas in this country. Ninety-six percent -- you don't get that kind of unanimity on very many issues. But yet for some reason we want to pretend that Christmas is equal to Kwanzaa, Christmas is equal to Hanukkah.

"I don't know any Jews who think, by the way, that Hanukkah has the same kind of importance in their life that the birth of Jesus has to Christians. And so it's not equal. But yet there's this determined effort by our culture -- and evidently some of our political leaders -- to, eh, make it all one big, happy picture.

"And, by the way, I would also point out that the president has been outspoken in courting Muslims in recent years, holding Ramadan dinners in the White House, and he doesn't say 'Happy Holidays' to those folks. He talks about Ramadan, what it means, in very specific terms."

RS: Joseph Farah makes his opnions known through radio, print and the Web site And that's Wordmaster for this week.

AA: Our e-mail address is And our reports are online at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.