A recent national survey found 92 per cent of non-Christian households prefer “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays.” Of the respondents who grew up in Christian households, 29 per cent said they avoid greeting strangers with Merry Christmas for fear of offending them. That was my experience recently when in a single day – three times – my “Merry Christmas” was met with “Happy Holidays.”
This column originally published in 2016 in Business In Vancouver.
In 1974, my sisters returned from school in tears after a Christmas break, telling my parents that a chubby man in a red suit came down chimneys with gifts for children who had been good. He never visited us.
The next morning, we found new colouring books and crayons in the fireplace. We had no heat, no furniture and little food, but there it was: Christmas in our fireplace.
Though my maternal grandfather came to Canada from India in 1930, my parents arrived in the mid-1960s and started a family. They had $7 and little education when they landed in Vancouver, but they made a priority of becoming employable by learning to speak, read and write English.
They befriended neighbours through conversations in broken English, creating bonds that have lasted until today. My mom encouraged neighbours to take advantage of her “open door, open kitchen” policy. Few could resist.
My parents hadn’t just immigrated; they integrated. They continued valuing, celebrating and instilling in us Indian traditions and adopted some of the customs of the community to which they now proudly belonged. As a family, we learned the value of diversity and developed a group of friends and a way of life that reflected it.
Three decades later, I found myself on the defensive after my employer, a Canadian TV station, surveyed employees and decided to replace the annual Christmas party with a “Winter Festivus” in February. Though I voted against the idea, colleagues glared at me with one – albeit jokingly – blaming the decision on “my people,” even though he knew I was born in Canada.
There was a time when my grandfather, like other Canadians of Asian origin, didn’t have the right to vote, so I am grateful that Canada legislates inclusion. Our Charter also protects freedom of religion. Yet, as governments and employers work, to acknowledge and respect the multicultural nature of our society, political correctness has become a one-way road that’s left Christmas out in the cold.
It doesn’t seem to matter that Christmas is the country’s most significant tradition or that Statistics Canada (2016) said two-thirds of Canadians identify as Christian.
This isn’t just happening in Canada. Britain’s national equality chief said businesses should bring back references to Christmas. He said employers who are worried about offending other religions are infringing on the religious freedom of Christians.
In my opinion, we are in an era of reverse exclusion and intolerance. We don’t modify greetings for Chinese New Year, Diwali, Eid and Hanukkah, but saying “Merry Christmas” risks giving offence, even though Christmas has a cultural significance for many non-Christians.
I am proud to belong to a society that fosters understanding among world religions and traditions, a country that allows us freedoms, including cultural parades.
Today, too many people immigrate without integrating into Canada’s great multicultural fabric. According to census data (2016), there are close to 300 ethnic enclaves across Canada, up from just six in 1981. We’ve become more insular as a society, which hurts the ability to understand and appreciate the experiences of others. It’s a shame because we all miss out.
Our family’s story came full circle when my mom died in 2010 at age 64. On my first visit to Costco without her, a clerk – a Muslim man – stopped me to say, “We will miss her. She was a friend to us all.”
So, from my Hindu family to yours, Merry Christmas.
Renu Bakshi ([email protected]) is a former long-time journalist who now works as an international crisis manager and media trainer.