As families blend and cultures overlap, life in December seems to get trickier and trickier every year. Even a simple greeting these days can be a minefield: Do we say “Merry Christmas?” “Happy Holidays?” Hmmm. Maybe, “Have a delightful December!” will do.
In this season of celebration, we all want to give gifts skillfully, attend unfamiliar parties artfully and generally emerge into January unscathed. But like it or not, the odds of stepping on toes—and offending religious or cultural sensibilities—are high.
Wait a minute! The twelfth month should be about joy, kindness, tolerance and gratitude, right? It’s a time of hope and deep generosity (as well as buffet tables lined with Christmas cookies, Hanukkah latkes and Kwanzaa coconut cakes). In that spirit, there are some straightforward ways to navigate the sticky terrain that is December.
Not everyone celebrates the way you do. If you know which holiday someone observes, you’re a step ahead: it’s easy to give a specific holiday wish, and it’s bound to be appreciated. But if you aren’t sure, err on the side of caution and just make a wish for a lovely season. America may be primarily a Christian country, but among us are also Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh Americans who deserve consideration. Which brings up another point…
Keep a generous spirit
We’re all trying our best here. Non-Christians are routinely wished a “Merry Christmas.” Many Christians balk at the less-than-satisfying “Happy Holidays.” But it’s all meant in good spirit. For your own sake—as well as that of those around you—don’t read too much into the way people greet you at this time of year. Just be thankful another person is reaching out to you with kindness.
Invited to an unfamiliar celebration? Not only are these hostess gift ideas appropriate, they’re sure to be appreciated.
- Christmas: Say “Merry Christmas” with a pretty red candle, Christmas cookies, a bottle of wine (tied with ribbon and a bell!), flowers, a delicate ornament, a box of candy, spiced nuts, a collection of hot cocoa mixes, Christmas music or gorgeous seasonal fruit.
- Hanukkah: In honor of Hanukkah, present a bottle of kosher wine, fresh flowers, homemade applesauce (a lovely topping for traditional latkes), cookies decorated in blue, white and silver (the colors of Hanukkah), a glass jar filled with chocolate coins (also called Hanukkah gelt), Hanukkah music or blue and white candy tied with silver ribbons.
- Kwanzaa: The main colors of Kwanzaa are red, green and black. Flowers reflecting Kwanzaa colors would be a perfect gift. (Maybe all red flowers with a green vase and black ribbon!) Fresh fruits, books, African art objects or handmade items are also very appropriate.
- Any holiday: A smile, an open mind and a warm wish are the best gifts of all.
If you’re in a multi-faith situation, staying neutral can be a smart move—especially when it comes to gifts and wrapping paper. Unless you know a person would love an inflatable menorah or a nativity scene crafted out of walnuts, don’t even go there. Santa Claus cookies won’t please everyone, but good ol’ sugar cookies are a safe bet. And simple winter gift wrap can be appreciated by all.
Being part of another’s celebration can only enhance your own. An unfamiliar Hanukkah party can be a chance to bask in candlelight, eat delicious latkes and learn how to play dreidel. People of any faith can marvel at the beauty of a Christmas service or midnight mass. The wisdom and customs of Kwanzaa can be uplifting to all. If you’re invited to new celebrations, by all means go! Your presence will be a great show of respect to friends and/or extended family. And when in doubt about what to do, just follow the lead of your hosts.
Our big, beautiful world is filled with variation in thought and customs. Embracing those differences doesn’t mean diluting your own treasured beliefs and traditions. Live and let live. Celebrate and let celebrate! It’s all good—and we’re good, too, when we offer acceptance and tolerance.
December’s difficulties are nothing more than invitations to connect more deeply with the people around us. So as the air turns frosty and winter festivities begin, unwrap the gift of our differences. If you handle them with care, the holiday season will respond in kind, delivering you into a brand new year safe and sound.
Penny Krugman Howard is a freelance writer and freestyle mom. Her December home is a funky mix of menorah lights and snowman stockings...reflecting her own and her husband’s traditions. The family cat swings both ways.