Dear Miss Manners: I am a Christian clergywoman. At Christmastime, I receive “Season’s greetings” from my butcher, my diaper delivery man and every salesperson I encounter. This is a lovely and appropriate gesture.
My immediate family is another matter. My stepsister, who is not religious, seems to make a studied effort to avoid saying the very words that would be personally meaningful to me. Her cards and gifts are marked “Season’s greetings” and “Happy winter holidays.” I am quite certain that, on the appropriate days, she would wish her Jewish friends a “Happy Hanukkah,” but she does not extend the same courtesy of specificity to me.
Of course, I could lighten up and be grateful for any pleasant greeting that comes my way, even a generic one. But I am wondering if there is a polite, gentle way of communicating to my stepsister that I would be touched to hear her say “Merry Christmas” because that is indeed what I am celebrating. What dictates the content of the greeting: the convictions of the greeter, or the convictions of the greeted?
Gentle Reader: Miss Manners is heartily in favor of lightening up and being grateful for any pleasant greeting that comes one’s way. She knows no gentle, polite method of sending back other people’s good wishes - any more than their presents - with the request that they be exchanged for something more pleasing.
But your question about whose point of view a greeting should represent is an interesting and complex one. If you don’t mind, Miss Manners would like to delve into that - but as the sender’s problem, rather than that of the recipient, who needs only to accept graciously whatever pleasantry is offered.
To show sympathetic interest in an occasion that one does not share calls for the ability to recognize the feelings of the person involved while avoiding the glib and false pretense of being just as involved.
For the milestones of life, the convention is simply to wish others happiness or comfort: “Happy birthday,” “Congratulations,” “You have my sympathy,” and so on. That you are not the one with the birthday or bereavement should be obvious.
The holidays of religions other than your own are more complicated, as they require showing respect for beliefs to which you obviously do not subscribe.
If your stepsister does wish Jews a happy Hanukkah, she had better know that they do not object, as many do, to Hanukkah’s being treated as an alternative Christmas. And she had better not go around wishing anyone a happy Yom Kippur.
“Merry Christmas” also means different things to different people. It is often used now as an all-purpose reference to the festive aspects of the celebration, hardly different from generalized seasonal good wishes.
But in that case, why can’t your stepsister please you by saying that, since it is what you want to hear?
She may be avoiding the term precisely because she shares your feeling that a specific mention of Christmas is a serious reference to its religious meaning. Not being a believer, she could be afraid that a “Merry Christmas” from her to you would seem as patronizing as “Happy Hanukkah” sometimes does from gentiles to Jews: As if it meant, “Well, I hope you have a good time at whatever it is that you do.”
Miss Manners is painfully aware that all this sounds like a ringing endorsement of exactly the sort of blandness that has turned a religious holiday into merely another excuse for fun. But she considers that a different issue, one on which she would offer you support.
Nevertheless, she does support the blandness of generic greetings as a way of expressing good will without getting into irreconcilable differences.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Judith Martin United Features Syndicate
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