Merry Christmas!

I was raised to the ideal of Christmas being a general sense of goodwill to all people. Christmas was meant to be merry, not a merry fuck you.

A season of generosity marked with presents and a general tolerance for the slightly drunken ramblings of family, and the rumblings of mountains of food getting demolished.

And it was good. Much like Diwali is good, or Tabish Svat is good, it was the sort of festival where you didn’t need to actually believe the foundational story to enjoy.

Then the cultural and religious/secular wars took off, and saying Merry Christmas is becoming a coded way of telling people to go fuck themselves. It seems that for many people, the phrase has come to represent an aggressive, mean-spirited version of Christian nationalism that asserts that it is defending a cultural value, while simultaneously raping it. I saw it first-hand yesterday, in a department store here in America where I’m spending the holidays, when a clerk wished a customer “Happy Holidays”. He responded with a belligerent “Merry Christmas” before launching into a tirade about people not wanting to acknowledge the birth of Christ.

It didn’t even occur to him that the clerk may not have been Christian or even religious, and that this was her compromise. Happy holidays, and various other formulae have been introduced as much for the sake of political correctness as for variety.

But I think more than one person would point out that the almost obligatory nature of Christmas is anything but – I mean, do we call someone a Grinch if they don’t particularly enjoy Eid? Do we have the three ghosts of past, present and future visiting grouchy old men who don’t like Passover in TV specials? Do we have major atheist comedians singing about how they really like Vesak, despite not buying into the Buddhist conception of enlightenment?

We massively favour Christmas, because at the heart of it all the meaning of it has morphed. For many, it is no longer so much about Christianity as it is a vision of a better humanity.

So say “Happy Holidays” if you will and I’ll happily accept it. But I can still say “Merry Christmas” with a smile, because for me there is no hidden agenda. I will not sully the greeting with the identity politics of politically incorrect copy pasting – which generally confuses xenophobic cowardice for courage.

Merry Christmas to all my friends and readers, with no obligation to repeat or agree with anything I say, because this is not the season for taking offence, but rather giving goodwill to all.

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The art of receiving well

Christmas. My favourite and worst time of the year. I almost always end up tearing my hair out looking for the right gifts for people. But giving a gift is only half the exchange: receiving is equally important, and sometimes the very hardest part.

There is an art to receiving a gift, whatever form it may take — something tangible or simply an act of kindness or generosity. Emily Post, ancient doyenne of good manners, has dictated the etiquette: You will be gracious; you will be grateful; you will remember to say “thank you.”

But there is more to good receiving than rules. The art of receiving requires craft.

A good receiver not only expresses liking and gratitude, but can make the giver feel more thoughtful and good about themselves. Being a good receiver requires genuine caring — and sometimes, some acting ability. As you open a gift you must never let your expression stray from delighted surprise, or even hint, “Why the hell is she giving this to me?” or “What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?”

The real test for a receiver is getting a “bad” or unwanted gift. That’s when you must turn your attention to the giver. “You are so thoughtful.” (Obviously the giver had some thoughts about this item, if only you could figure out what they were.) Or, “How nice of you to think of me.” (It is always nice that others think of us.) If the gift is handmade you can always appreciate “the time you must have spent.” (Even “bad” gifts made by hand represent an investment of time.)

But etiquette and strategy cover only a part of receiving a gift well. What about the deeper difficulty in receiving — really allowing yourself to be given to?

The big test is whether you can accept a gift without feeling that you have to give one back. This is hard for many people. I have a few friends for whom this is like a badge of independence. You offer to take them to a concert or to pay for dinner and their first response is to reach for their wallets: “What do I owe you?” Grrrrrrr!

But I too have been guilty of this in the past, especially at this time of year. For a while I used to keep a spare set of Christmas cards handy, just in case I received one from someone I hadn’t thought of. But that could be equally ungracious.

What if you allowed the giver to simply give?

There’s something to be said for allowing another person to be the sole giver. You honour them by receiving their gift, rather than evening the score by handing back a pretty package of some generic item that is intended only to make you feel less guilty over their generosity. Sometimes the nicest thing we can give someone is to let them be the thoughtful one.

Receiving well is actually a kind of generosity. This year I’ve decided that, when required, I will allow myself to be given to, and give the gift of receiving well.