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A Happy Birthday

Billy Jean King's 70th birthday party November 6th
Photo by Brad Barket

It happens not to be my birthday this week; I am nearly half a year from that. It is likely that it is not your birthday, whoever you are reading this, although there is a chance that this will find some of you on your birthdays. It is only that the whole holiday greetings issue, which we considered in connection with The Radio Shack Boycott and then revisited with our Christmas Eve article Holiday Greetings and even swiped briefly last week in The New Year, continues to bother me. Why should it offend anyone if I do, or do not, say "Merry Christmas", or "Happy Holidays", or indeed "Happy Chanukkah" or "Auspicious Yule" or any other holiday greeting to persons who might or might not celebrate the same? If I am wishing you well in connection with a day I celebrate, or you celebrate, or someone we know or do not know celebrates, I am wishing you well. I could wish that you have a happy day on my birthday, and be perfectly sincere in wishing you a happy day, despite the fact that you do not know when my birthday is and there is not likely to be a party so you are unlikely to be invited. Why should it offend you for me to wish you a happy day on Christmas, by name, if it is my sincere wish? Similarly, would it offend you for me to wish you a happy day on what happened to be your birthday, I in my ignorance unaware that I failed to say so?

I have a relative whose birthday happens to fall on St. Patrick's Day. It is celebrated every year, the Irish managing to make more of their holiday for more people than I think the perhaps more numerous Mexicans manage to do on Cinco de Mayo (which as it happens is also the birthday of someone in my family). No one complains at being wished a happy St. Patrick's Day, even though it is not merely a Catholic holiday but a politically divisive one in Ireland: it specifically identifies Ireland as a predominantly Roman Catholic country, against the English Protestantism of the upper class and British royalty. Thus it is religious and political, and controversial on both counts. Yet on that day, people ignore the fact that they are not Irish and not Catholic, and wish each other a happy holiday by its name, without stirring any trouble. In New York, they even have a parade, and televise it.

If you wish to wish me a happy Martin Luther King Day, that's fine with me. I am not black; I do not know that it matters, as the contributions made by the Reverend Doctor improved the entire country and so touched all of us. Even so, if you want to wish me a happy Birthington's Washday or Bluebeard's Wedding Anniversary or National Hangover Day, I am not going to object to being so blessed. I don't happen to celebrate any of those holidays, but if it is an important day for you, that makes it an important day.

So whenever your birthday falls, may it be a happy one, and may you have good days on all the holidays and all the ordinary days as well, and may we all just cool down a bit and stop worrying about whether the other person celebrates the same days we do. Not all Christians celebrate Christmas, either because they prefer celebrating Epiphany or because they perceive it as a thinly-veiled celebration of Saturnalia. We do not all mark the same date as Easter. If even among ourselves we cannot agree on our holidays, and cannot trouble ourselves to learn all the holidays of all the other faiths in our highly pluralist society, we ought not to take offense at others, whether they wish us merry Christmas, happy holidays, or a very happy unbirthday.