When ‘Happy Holidays’ Isn’t So Controversial, After All: UWindsor Students and Windsorites Share their Holiday Traditions
‘Happy holidays’ has become a contentious expression in recent years. Certain conservative Christians in the US have framed it as representative of a “war on Christmas”, or some sort of attack on Christmas and Christianity. Think back to the 2015 controversy over Starbucks’ red holiday cups, which replaced the company’s more festive cups of previous years. This too was a sign of the “war on Christmas”, claimed various right-wing American Christians.
Well, I’ve got some news for you. There is no trace of a “war on Christmas” at the University of Windsor. In this corner of the world, this “war” is much more like a distant, chimerical battle cry. I spoke with various UWindsor students and Windsorites who celebrate different holidays in the month of December, and all displayed nothing but goodwill towards their brethren of different faiths. They shared their holiday traditions with me and expressed appreciation for the inclusive term ‘Happy holidays’.
Christmas: Hope, Peace, and Love
Moses Gunaratnam, a fourth-year student in Aeronautics Leadership, celebrates Christmas. Moses is a Servant Team Member at UWindsor’s chapter of Power to Change, a Christian college community which in his words “exists to show the love of God and relevance of Jesus to each other and the university community”. As a Servant Team Member, his role is to help plan and organize P2C events throughout the year and maintain the vision of the group.
Although most people in North America generally know what this December 25th holiday is about, Moses’ experiences with Christmas are somewhat unique. “I grew up in Turkey, where Christmas isn’t celebrated and my family and I were the only Christians we knew,” he explained.
“Despite there being no external signs of Christmas, it was always a special day when my family and I put up the Christmas tree and sang Christmas carols. Though my sister and I were always excited for the gifts and the cookies my mom baked, family was the strongest element of the holiday for me.”
When Moses and his family moved to Canada, he experienced a bit of a culture shock seeing how widely celebrated and commercialized Christmas is here compared to his home country. This allowed him to re-evaluate the meaning of the holiday. “Amidst culture shocks like hearing Christmas songs on the radio, having school off, and seeing Christmas-themed products, I refocused on the true significance of Christmas,” he said.
“Now, when I think about Christmas, I think about a Heavenly Father sending his Son into the world so that we don’t have to pay for the consequences of our sin. We’re all broken people, but thanks to Jesus, we can experience and celebrate hope, peace, and love during the season.”
This Christian is pretty accepting of the term ‘Happy holidays’ and appreciates its inclusivity. Moses elaborated: “I honestly feel indifferent about it, but I always appreciate people wishing me happy holidays.”
“We should all strive to understand and serve each other, so I am happy to use a term that includes people of other faiths. I love celebrating Christmas and always enjoy inviting others to celebrate with me, but I believe that getting upset about others not celebrating it is antithetical to the meaning of the season.”
Festivus: A Secular, Anti-Commercial Holiday
Nick, a fourth-year student at the University of Windsor, does not celebrate any particular holiday in December. However, he quipped that he’s a fan of Festivus, a secular holiday which originated on the show Seinfeld and is celebrated on December 23rd. This holiday is meant to challenge the commercialism of modern Christmas. Some typical Festivus activities include a “Feats of Strength”, or wrestling match, and an “Airing of Grievances”, or complaining session.
“I mean, we’ve never had a Feats of Strength, but we air grievances,” joked Nick about his typical holiday activities. On a more serious note, he added: “I’ve heard people do actually celebrate Festivus legitimately, but they’re mostly die-hard Seinfeld fans.”
Nick is not a fan of the holidays because of his past negative experiences working in retail during the holiday season. “I basically didn’t have a holiday break at all for six years or so, since it was the busiest time of work,” he explained. “So I’d work Christmas eve until late setting up stores, then work on Boxing Day from 5 a.m. until 5 p.m. Some years it was great because of the commission, but other years it was just pure holiday music and hatred.”
“Like in the mall, you can’t move, you can’t even have a break because there’s nowhere to go, nowhere to eat, nowhere to buy food in the thirty minutes you have for lunch.”
Boxing Days were the worst, explained Nick since that is when customers were the most aggressive and greedy. One incident especially sticks out in his memory. A customer cut in line and demanded that Nick help him. Bluntly, Nick replied that he would if it weren’t for “this line of people [who] will actually try to kill you”. In response, the line of angry customers simultaneously started threatening the customer who cut in line, like some sort of hive-minded mob.
Nick’s employers encouraged employees to tell customers happy holidays, although it wasn’t a formal rule. Most customers didn’t mind it, but as Nick explained, “they sometimes said stuff like “who says I have to be happy?”
As a retail worker, he could really relate to that sentiment.
Hanukkah: The Miracle of Light
Sadie-Rae Werner is a third-year law student and the co-president of the Jewish Students Association at the University of Windsor. In Sadie’s words, the JSA “provides Jewish students with a place to connect with their community, faith, and culture” through a range of programming and events. The JSA also seeks to “address the unfortunately growing tide of antisemitism experienced by Jewish students at the University of Windsor” through reporting and advocacy. For Sadie and other Jewish people around the world, Hanukkah is an important and meaningful holiday.
The meaning of Hanukkah is especially significant to Sadie. “Hanukkah is a holiday I’ve always really loved. Not just because I get to spend time eating good food like latkes and jelly doughnuts with my family and friends,” she began, “but also because of the meaning behind the holiday. During Hanukkah, not only are we celebrating the miracle of light, but we are commemorating a time when we fought to prevent our homeland from being seized from us.”
“The Hanukkah story is a story of rebellion. During the Greek occupation of Jerusalem, a small band of soldiers—the Maccabees—rose up to fight for Jewish self-determination and freedom under Greek rule. They were fighting to live as Jews according to Jewish customs in their Indigenous homeland. After the fighting had concluded and this small under-dog army had won, it was discovered that there was only enough oil to light the lamp in the temple for one night. But by a miracle, the oil lasted for eight days.”
Sadie partakes in a variety of yearly traditions to celebrate Hanukkah. Growing up, for example, she would gather with family to light the menorah, a nine-branch candelabra that is part of the holiday. Although she no longer lives at home, she has continued this tradition. She also likes to attend Hanukkah parties held at synagogue or friends’ homes.
She too appreciates the expression ‘Happy holidays’ for its inclusivity. “The simple reality is that there are at least twelve holidays celebrated by different faith groups in December,” she said. “We live in a wonderfully diverse country, and saying happy holidays is an opportunity to celebrate that.”
She also wanted to debunk the misconception that Hanukkah is only a minor holiday within the Jewish faith. “It is a less pious holiday than Shabbat or Passover,” she explained, “but it is a very important holiday for the Jewish community all over the world.”
“Regardless of how major or minor holidays are—and to be clear—Hanukkah is not a minor holiday, the simple reality is that Christmas is only one of at least a dozen holidays celebrated this time of year, and that is what is important to acknowledge.”
Sadie would encourage everyone to learn more about other faith traditions and the holidays that are significant to each.
“The holiday season is an excellent time to learn about traditions in different communities and to understand the experiences of your peers from different backgrounds. If you don’t know anything about Hanukkah, consider taking some time to learn about this holiday, and the story of the Maccabees and the oil lamp, and why it is significant to the Jewish people.”
Kwanzaa: Celebrating Black Culture and Traditions
Kwanzaa holds a special place in the heart of Clarese Carter. Clarese is one of the co-founders of Family Fuse, a registered not-for-profit in Windsor-Essex. In Clarese’s words, this organization “supports Black Canadian parents, guardians, and caregivers to navigate the education system”. Clarese is the Community Facilitator and Child Youth Worker at Family Fuse. She works alongside co-founders Salem Berhane, Family Fuse’s Outreach Facilitator, and Christie Nelson, their Program Coordinator.
Importantly, Family Fuse will be hosting their first-ever Kwanzaa celebration virtually on December 28. As described at the above webpage, Kwanzaa “is a holiday in celebration of community, family, and culture and was established as a means to help African Americans reconnect with their African roots and heritage”. Although African-American in origin, many African-Canadians celebrate Kwanzaa, too.
According to Clarese, families celebrate Kwanzaa from December 26th to January 1st. “Each day, they learn about one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa and light the Kinara to breathe life into it until the Feast on December 31st,” she explained.
“Unity, self-determination, and collective work and responsibility are only a few of the principles that Kwanzaa encourages.”
As Clarese explained to me, Kwanzaa celebrations can involve a wide variety of activities and symbols. For example, gathering with friends and family and making crafts together are common. “I’ve attended Kwanzaa celebrations where families gather with friends to signify unity and celebrate bonds, eat, and make crafts and handmade gifts that are shared on the last day of the celebration,” she said.
“It’s a wonderful time to share stories and learn about African principles and history. There are beautiful displays and arrangements of items that represent the seven principles. You may see the beautiful clothes of Africa and the colors of the pan-African flag represented throughout the space and on the clothing worn by participants. Red represents the struggle, Black represents the people, and Green represents the future. These colors were first proclaimed to be the colors for all people of the African diaspora by Marcus Garvey.”
For Clarese, Kwanzaa above all “means a greater sense of connection, family, support, and valuing Black culture and traditions.”
As someone who celebrates both Christmas and Kwanzaa, she quite likes the inclusive term ‘Happy holidays’, although she likes hearing ‘Merry Christmas’ as well. “Happy holidays is okay with me because it is inclusive and I wouldn’t want to offend anyone,” she said. “With my upbringing and the fact that many Black people that celebrate Kwanzaa also celebrate Christmas, I do miss hearing the comfortable and very familiar ‘Merry Christmas’ during these times.”
To learn more about Family Fuse’s virtual Kwanzaa event and sign up to participate, click here.
From all of us here at The Lance, we wish you Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year.