News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Here comes the "Happy Holidays" hand grenade

As we clear away the Thanksgiving dishes, the holiday season in the U.S. begins in earnest. Over the next few weeks, the nation will indulge in what is essentially the biggest shopping spree of the year. Oh, yeah. We do manage to squeeze in some religious holidays as well.

Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus and Jews commemorate Hanukkah during this period. Another holiday at this time of year is Kwanzaa; a cultural celebration observed primarily in the African-American community but not generally considered a religious observance. So the term “holiday season” is more than a euphemism for the celebration of Christmas and the New Year.

But as this time to celebrate joy and peace approaches, the religious right will begin to wail that using “Happy Holidays” denigrates their faith. Over the last few years, it has become a new holiday tradition. The Christian right will insist merchants and the government stop using “Happy Holidays” and use “Merry Christmas” instead.

Please. This rings as hollow as a Warren Buffet’s grandkids complaining about not getting enough presents for Christmas.

U.S. society has a default setting for its citizenry: white, Christian and male. This bias is embedded so deeply in U.S. culture, any attempt to dislodge it raises cries of reverse racism — or that all-time favorite of the country club set: political correctness.

You see, if you show respect for a minority group, non-Christian faith or women, that’s being “politically correct.” On the other hand, the same people who complain about political correctness often insist we should permit prayer in the schools or display the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn. The bias for their own religion and culture is so ingrained, the inconsistency escapes them.

A few years back, a colleague of mine sneered about “political correctness” when a Native American professor complained about the use of a totem pole as a metaphor in a magazine advertisement our agency created. The totem pole, the professor explained, was a religious symbol to his people. “Would you have used the image of Jesus to sell a product?” the professor asked. We pulled the ad and I sincerely apologized for being ignorant of the totem pole’s religious significance. About a year later, the same colleague had who sneered at the professor was offended because the cover of my novel showed a burning U.S. flag. Need I add that this colleague was a white male?

The hand grenades lobbed against “Happy Holidays” are part of a widespread cultural backlash. The English-only movement is another salvo in this culture war. Sadly, it is a movement driven by fear.

As it has throughout its history, the face of the United States is changing once again. The cultural conflict we are witnessing is as old as this nation created by a stew of people, cultures and religions. Still, the echoes of the Know Nothings live on. But as history has shown, these are the last gasps of prejudice. The nation will thrive, richer in its heritage, stronger for its diversity.

So let me wish you Happy Holidays – with all that it implies. 

Raul Ramos y Sanchez