We sat down at a corner table in Pizza Planet and began eating a late lunch. It was Christmas Eve, our first day at Disney World, and the restaurant was buzzing not unlike the scene from Toy Story.
This trip was our Christmas present, but I had struggled with knowing that so many employees were away from their families while we were enjoying ours.
In an effort to not get too caught up in the magic of Disney, we decided to be more diligent in showing our gratitude and sharing the spirit of Christmas. We sincerely thanked the shuttle drivers, cast members, cashiers and custodians and wished them all a Merry Christmas. We tried to be especially cheery, gracious and giving. And we did the same to our fellow guests in the very crowded but happiest place on earth.
So as we began eating our pizza that afternoon, a teenage girl sat down at the table next to us. We smiled and Larry said “Merry Christmas!”
She started talking with us while waiting for the rest of her family.
As the conversation progressed, we learned she was from New York, going to school, working a few part-time jobs including one as a Hebrew language tutor and that she was Jewish. To which Larry’s “Merry Christmas” greeting was brought up.
Was she offended when people say that to her?
No, not at all, she replied. In fact, she said, when someone says Merry Christmas, she’s happy they enjoy their holiday. And she wants to be happy about celebrating hers as well.
When we were done, Larry wished her a Happy Chanukah and she replied with Merry Christmas to us.
I was so impressed by this young but wise teenager.
In recent years, there are many who have been offended over the phrase “Happy Holidays.”
I think most people’s response to this issue is because they believe we need to keep Christ in Christmas.
And I whole-heartedly agree.
I say Merry Christmas because that is what I celebrate.
But when we choose to be offended because someone is saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, I believe we have missed the whole point of the season.
Before I get to that point, however, let’s remember that we do live in the United States of America, which was, in part, founded upon religious freedom. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Also, while the US is a mostly Christian nation – 70 percent based on the 2014 US Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Research Center – we have no national religion; 30 percent of us come from non-Christian faiths (Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and others) as well as those who are unaffiliated like atheists and agnostics.
Again, we are free to choose.
The Interfaith Calendar, from the Mall Area Religious Council in Minnesota, lists 40 religious observances from major world religions which are observed from November through January, many of which are not Christian.
More importantly than all of that, though, and back to my main point: what is the purpose of Christmas?
This answer could differ, even among Christians.
But I think most of us agree that it is a time to rejoice in the birth of our Savior. A season to not only remember him but also renew our commitment to be more like Him.
Pastor Scott Moon, FUMC Maryville, in the Nodaway News Leader’s Advent column, “Don’t just observe Christmas…Experience Christmas,” said: “This year, do whatever it takes to step away from the mere observance of a holiday and enter into the experience of God’s love and grace which is at the heart of Christmas.”
His words reminded me of something I love from Dieter F. Uchtdorf: “If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us get caught up in the chaos of Christmas – the shopping, the decorating, the baking. Those can all lend to the spirit of Christmas and the spirit of giving but many times they become a distraction and we end up acting more like Scrooge than Tiny Tim.”
Choosing to be offended by someone saying Happy Holidays, or by a plain red Starbucks cup, or anything else, makes us act more like Scrooge and takes away from the experience of Christmas, the love, the joy, the giving.
The way we can truly keep Christ in Christmas is through our actions.
I’m grateful for that young 19-year-old Jewish girl from New York who reminded me of that, not just this time of year, but always.
“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34).
Even those who say Happy Holidays.