happy holidays

Happy holidays is an American seasonal greeting--one that I find very useful, because (1) I don't like to say (AmE-preferred) Merry Christmas or (BrE) Happy Christmas to people unless I know for sure that they celebrate Christmas, and (2) it saves having to say Happy New Year as well. To Christmas-celebrating Americans, 'the holidays' are Christmas and New Year, but the phrase happy holidays could equally refer to Hanukkah and New Year or Kwanzaa and New Year or Solstice and New Year, etc. So, it's an equal-opportunity phrase.

But over on the UK-Scrabble list, I've just discovered that some people (or at least a Dutch person writing in) believe that the holidays in Happy Holidays refers to Christmas and Boxing Day. Not the case. Americans do not observe Boxing Day.

Better Half and I can think of no BrE phrase that people actually say that does the same job. In cards, one sees Greetings of the festive season or Season's Greetings. In speech, people just say Happy/Merry Christmas. Boxing Day doesn't get a mention. A few people do say Happy Holidays, but this is perceived as American and often resented for being "politically correct". To me, politically correct just means 'polite and considerate', so it's beyond me why it should be resented.


  1. Just a sidenote: In German, "Boxing Day" is "2. Weihnachtsfeiertag" (2nd christmas holiday). "Weihnachten" (christmas) is hence regarded as two days in Germany.

  2. Just to clarify about the person who wrote in to the uk-scrabble list, although Janet lives in Holland, she's not Dutch, she's South African.

    I've always understood that BrE preferred Merry Christmas rather than Happy Christmas, but that may well be only when it's combined with a New Year greeting: Merry New Year sounds wrong, so it has to be Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

  3. As the Wikipedia article says, in Ireland we don't have Boxing Day into the extent that some people wouldn't know when Boxing Day was. It's just called St Stephen's Day here.

    Politically correct definitely seems to carry negative connotations these days. I'm not sure what the politically correct term for politically correct is these days - maybe "prefered" would be less charged?

    I was recently looking for a name for a paper, and was going to use the phrase "Chinese Whispers" in the title. I believe this game is called "The Telephone Game" in America. One American colleague thought I couldn't possibly use the term because it would be insensitive. My Chinese workmates thought it was a great name! I decided to use a different name because it would have been double-dutch to the Americans.

  4. Thanks for the clarification on the South Africanness of Janet, Strawman. It's not that BrE doesn't prefer Merry Christmas that I was trying to communicate (in my abbreviated way), just that Americans prefer to say Merry, but saying Happy is a BrE alternative--but not THE BrE alternative.

  5. Saying merry christmas to people randimly is basicly saying everyone in the world has to be christian which is not the case and since when is greeting someone have got any thing to do with politics!

  6. I found your blog just the other day and find it very interesting (I was reading your archives and had no idea "whilst" was considered pretentious - I've always used it).

    But anyway, I think a lot of people are disenchanted with "happy holidays" because, even though it was originally used with good intentions, it has quickly devolved into silliness. For instance, I've encountered a lot of commercials that replace every instance where a normal person would say "Christmas" with "holiday." There's no reason to refer to Christmas trees as "holiday trees" as I don't know of anyone who uses one in a celebration other than Christmas. People don't like it when their holiday is treated like a dirty word, and I find it condescending to assume that people who don't celebrate Christmas would be deeply hurt or intimidated by a stranger wishing them a merry one.

    I've no problem with someone choosing to say "happy holidays," but I find the best method is to just wish a person a "happy-whatever-holiday-you-personally-celebrate." Most people will realize you have good intentions.


  7. I've never heard anyone seriously say holiday tree--just Fox News broadcasters trying to stir up a fight.

  8. I work in a grocery store that plays its own commercials over the radio - they substitute the word "holiday" for "Christmas" in the ways I described. I also know someone who works in a daycare that wasn't allowed to call the Christmas tree a Christmas tree - she had to call it a holiday tree. Lastly, the college I go to has a Christmas tree with a sign calling it a "holiday tree." I wouldn't have brought it up had I only heard it on some news station.

  9. Surely the main reason we in the UK don't use the word holidays to refer to the festive season is that we use that word in the way Americans use the word vacation.

    If we started using holidays in the way Americans do, major confusion could result, especially for people who go on (BrE)holiday over the (AmE)holidays.

  10. I think we BrE-speakers don't use holidays to mean Christmas and new year because, in BrE, the term often means time taken off work in summer which, in the northern hemisphere, isn't around Christmas and new year. BTW, during the BrE holiday-time, when the weather in Britain can be quite good, at least some of my compatriots fly inexplicably to countries where the weather is too hot.

  11. I think there's definitely something to Barnoid's and Paul's theory.

  12. Christmas is FAR from being a merely christian (OR Christian) festival. It has taken on a life of its own. I, as a rampant Atheist (albeit married to a Texan Christian fundamentalist) happily celebrate it because it has developed universalist tendencies which go far beyond the narrowly religious. In actual fact the modern western Christmas is far more a celebration of nauseous commercialism than anything else; and it also gets referred to in BrE as Yuletide, which is an ancient pagan festival, and the Christmas tree itself is also a pagan symbol, no more to do with Christian symbolism than the easter bunny or the chocolate eggs in another "Christian" festival which has even kept its Pagan name, Easter being named after Eostre (or however you choose to spell it) who I believe is a Pagan fertility goddess. I have noticed christians tend to go very quiet and then become very aggressive/abusive when you ask them to explain the Christian symbolism of the Easter bunny.

  13. Incidentally, you may have noticed in my last post a certain mixing of upper and lower case C/c in reference to c(C)hristians and their religion. It is a method I use to distinguish between those like my wife who truly follow (or genuinely attempt to seriously follow, for the less feasible parts) Christian tenets of belief and behaviour, and the great majority who instead wear their religion on their sleeves while happily going around doing whatever they feel like whenever they feel like it, and also posing with it as being vastly morally superior to the rest of us. Or, if you prefer, my upper case wife believes in and follows all those very cool love and forgiveness precepts the like of which the lower case mob tend to think of as commy pinko "fag" liberalism while professing to follow the man who allegedly created them. Of course, this does not work at all in speech, which is a bit of a problem for me.

    I have been thinking of experimenting with "Christian" and "christist," but that would have clarity problems in that the distinction would not be at all clear to anyone except myself, whereas the C/c thing is, I think, reasonably catchable to those who have eyes to see.

  14. No, I think most americans say "merry christmas", but most commercial places say happy holidays...

    And I rarely hear "happy christmas" It is mostly "merry"...

  15. Perhaps Americans more often understand "Christmas" to mean "Christmas Day", whereas Brits understand it to mean "Christmas time". In the latter sense, "Happy [or Merry] Christmas" will cover the whole festive season, not just one single day.

  16. Jack (if you are still there),
    the Soviet-influenced countries have "New Year's" trees as all religious observances were frowned upon by the Party. Nowadays the traditions are somewhat mixed in some of these regions, so there may be genuine need for a term like this. We don't call it a holiday tree, though. It's just called a "Spruce", always has been. It's a shame nobody in English refers to a Christmas Tree as the type of tree it is (and don't tell me they use firs or pines or whatever. Maybe I should start a trend of calling them "conifers" instead of "holiday trees". Buy your conifers here)

  17. I have read articles in the UK which are very hostile to the US use of "Happy Holidays". I admit to feeling hostility to the term myself.

    I am an atheist, I have many friends who are Muslim and Hindu. We all celebrate Christmas equally, if not for Christian reasons then as a chance for family time and gift-giving. We all give presents, put up trees, eat traditional Christmas food - even the Muslims I know who wear hijab and are very strict.

    So I can't understand how "Christmas" could ever be considered offensive.

    If I wish someone "Happy Christmas" then I am wishing them well, and wishing them happiness over the Christmas period, not passing judgement about their religious tendencies. I know no one, of any religion, who would be offended by this.

    In BrE, it is true "holidays" normally means either "summer holidays" "bank holidays" or "foreign holidays". We have no sense of it meaning a period such as Christmas.

    Additionally, it is seen as a bland and watered down term that seeks to please everyone, and as such it is viewed with considerable hostility. Part of this is probably due to it being an American import.

  18. My first winter in the US, I wished a colleague "merry Christmas" and she (being Jewish) replied, rather embarrassedly, "I don't celebrate Christmas -- I celebrate Hanukkah". Major awkwardness all round.

    I don't think I'd ever heard of Hanukkah until then, even though I had had several Jewish friends and colleagues in the UK.

    Ever since then I have been very careful only to refer to "Christmas" if I know the person celebrates it.

  19. Since this thread has risen from the dead. (oops, wrong holiday...)

    I don't think that anyone has mentioned that "Happy Holidays" is also controversial in the US. Those who object are generally conservative Christians who are offended by the use of such a secular/inclusive phrase in what they see as a "Christian nation."

    I'm also an atheist who celebrates Christmas as a secular holiday, but I would never wish "Merry Christmas" to someone unless I knew that they celebrated it. People may not always object to this- out of a desire to avoid conflict or appreciation of the speaker's good intentions, but I know that many of my non-Christian friends find it at best exasperating, and at worst hurtful.

    I'm not sure that "happy holidays" is the solution- it's awfully bland- but I'd rather people think I'm "politically correct" than that I don't respect their traditions and beliefs.

  20. Anything done intentionally to AVOID offending anyone is called Politically correct, I think, because in our constitution it say all men(interpreted to people)are created equal. There for we no longer condone discrimination. And to say Merry Christmas to a non Christian "could" be considered discriminatory to whatever there beliefs are.

  21. As Easter is already adumbrated: I was told by an art expert that for Greek Orthodox Christians, the egg represents the Blessed Trinity - yolk, white and shell making one egg.

  22. I've just happened upon this fascinating passage from a 1920 book by the British social reformer Alfred George Gardiner:

    Victorian England used to wish you " A Merry Christmas and
    a Happy New Year." Nowadays the formula is
    " A Happy Christmas and a Prosperous New Year."
    It is a priggish, sophisticated change a sort of shame-
    faced implication that there is something vulgar in
    being " merry." There isn't. For my part, I do not
    want a Happy Christmas : I want a Merry Christmas.
    And I do not want a fat, prosperous New Year. I
    want a Happy New Year, which is a much better and
    more spiritual thing.

    From his 1920 book Windfalls.


The book!

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)