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Kevin McEvoy, PhD What saying ‘Happy Holidays’ says about us

December 15, 2018

“Happy Holidays!” It is the most common greeting offered this time of year. People say it to each other. Retailers greet consumers with it. We hear it in advertisements across all platforms-television, radio and in print. It is now so common the words go almost unnoticed, much like asking “how are you” as you pass by someone you know, and often don’t even hear the answer. Such greetings have become a habit.

Yet this popular greeting of Happy Holidays is a relatively new individual and consumer practice in society. It is a cultural departure from the past typical and historical greetings of Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah. This evolution of language suggests that practices observed in popular culture continue to evolve, often in unpredictable ways.

What is happening in culture and society? This cultural evolution seems in opposition to the direction most of society has recently and notably taken, which intends to celebrate diversity, individualism and uniqueness. Yet, saying Happy Holidays has become the default general greeting, specifying nothing in particular, nothing specific, and nothing unique. As such, saying Happy Holidays does not appear to celebrate diversity or uniqueness, rather, it suggests commonality and sameness. Happy Holidays has become the generic greeting, a verbal commodity. In a culture intending to celebrate diversity, a use of a commodity-like phrase suggests an interesting undercurrent of a cultural conflict in society. We strive for diversity but we seem reluctant to publicly acknowledge it.

Why has this culture of language in society changed? Do people now fear saying the wrong thing and insulting someone by not being respectful? The desire for recognizing diversity seems overshadowed by the concern of expressing the wrong kind or brand of diversity. Are people now afraid of being judged insensitive for extending the “wrong” kind of greeting when they attempt to do just the opposite by taking a risk to recognize the diversity of the greeted? What does saying “Happy Holidays” say about us?

It may say that the current culture has become risk adverse. Take no chances. Do retailers train clerks to say Happy Holidays due to a concern that customers might be insulted and not return? What is the appropriate response if someone says Happy Hanukkah to a celebrator of Christmas, or vice-versa? Does this reflect poor etiquette, or an honest attempt to personalize a kind greeting? This indicates a certain level of confusion in American culture right now. Yet there appears to be no such confusion over a Happy New Year greeting. Why? Because, like Happy Holidays, Happy New Year it is generic phrase, a commodity. There is no risk of mis-recognizing diversity. It’s the New Year for everyone.

This is also not a discussion about religious beliefs. Religious beliefs are an internal mental and spiritual process that people express outwardly by reflecting those beliefs by their own personal practice. This practice is what the individual believes about themselves. An external greeting such as Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, or Happy Holidays reflects what the individual greeter thinks about the beliefs of other person being greeted, not a reflection of their own beliefs. Yet, in fact, the greeter reveals something about themselves with the greeting they choose, and what they have been told is socially acceptable.

Perhaps a Happy Holidays greeting is simply a matter of style, a verbal fad, a pop culture movement. Styles and fads come and go quickly (remember last season’s shoes?), usually without advance notice. If Happy holidays is simply a fad, it doesn’t do much to support the sincerity of the greeting. Once again, it is really a generic commodity, a throw away phrase.

Doing the right thing is never the wrong thing. Saying Happy Holidays is nice. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Ramadan, and other greetings are in fact more respectful and considerate. There is no need to get angry or be “insulted” if an incorrect greeting is extended. The receiver can simply acknowledge the greeting’s intended well wishes. What’s wrong with replying “Thank you for your kind thoughts and well wishes?”

Kevin McEvoy, PhD, is a multiple award winning Assistant Professor in Residence in Marketing at the University of Connecticut. He has been named a Teaching Scholar by the Institute of Teaching and Learning at UConn.

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