When I first set foot in America in the mid-2000s, I found myself in an odd situation come December. I had to bite my tongue to catch myself from saying “Merry Christmas.” It was just something I did out of habit; I had always said “Merry Christmas” while growing up in England. But I had to adjust to the correct greeting—“Happy Holidays”—in my new cultural context. I still haven’t gotten used to it.
And so it was with some confusion that I heard about the latest edict in today’s soft cultural revolution. Across the pond, in England, civil servants were instructed not to use the word “Christmas” in a COVID vaccine publicity campaign for fear of offending religious minorities, such as Muslims. The festive season must be referred to as “the holidays” because some religions don’t celebrate Christmas. As a Muslim, I can say that this is absolute rubbish. The word “Christmas” should not be seen as offensive in modern Britain for several important reasons.
First—no doubt to the lament of many of my colleagues in Princeton—there simply aren’t enough practicing Christians in modern Britain today to make the innocuous phrase “Merry Christmas” a threat to minority religions in the sense of a tyranny of a religious majority. In Western Europe, that ship has long sailed.
Second, Christmas can actually be an important time of the year for British Muslims. I learned this when I was growing up in England in the 1980s and ’90s. My parents were immigrants from Pakistan, and for our Muslim community, Christmas served as an integrating function through which immigrant Muslims were able to engage their new neighbors on some common ground (for Muslims, both Jews and Christians are “People of the Book”). Even though many of our neighbors were only nominally Christian, they still had shared Christmas activities and customs through which the Muslim community could engage its new community.
One of my mother’s special delights was the custom of exchanging Christmas cards with our non-Muslim neighbors. The giving and receiving of Christmas cards facilitated dialogue. The practice helped build a neighborly community. As an anthropologist, I now recognize and appreciate these everyday encounters and shared activities as essential to forming the social fabric of our society. Christmas card exchanges have declined over the years, as has the spirit of neighborliness.
Finally, many imams and lay Muslims use Christmas as an opportunity to revive Jesus’s teachings. The story of Jesus in Britain’s dominantly secular culture has been chiefly kept alive via its more recent Muslim inhabitants, for whom Isa (the Arabic name for Jesus) is a revered prophet. Muslims do not believe Jesus was the Son of God, but they do consider Jesus a messiah who performed miracles. Muslims refer to Jesus by various titles, such as “Son of Mary” and “Spirit of God.” Muslims believe in the annunciation and our understanding of the virgin birth in Bethlehem is similar to the account in the Gospels.
There is thus no reason why the word “Christmas” ought to be offensive in contemporary Britain. And so, as a Muslim, I’d like to wish you all a very merry Christmas.
Nasser Hussain is a 2021-2022 Thomas W. Smith Postdoctoral Research Associate in the James Madison Program and Lecturer in Politics at Princeton University.