Chris Montone*: How Should a Buddhist Respond to “Merry Christmas”?

For those of us who have formally taken refuge and changed our religious affiliation to Buddhism, the end of the year holiday season can pose some interesting challenges—one of which being, what to say in response to the myriad wishes of “Merry Christmas” that are bestowed upon us during the season. Naturally, each individual takes his or her own journey as they wrestle with this one. I thought I’d briefly share mine.

Initially, I recall, it became very clear to me the first Christmas season after I took refuge that people who were wishing me a Merry Christmas had no clue that I was now a Buddhist. How could they know? I didn’t look any different! Stranger still, even those who DID know (like my family) still wished me a Merry Christmas. This made me wonder how often in the past I had done the same thing—wishing people a “Merry Christmas” when they may have been Jewish, or atheist, or an adherent of another religion. Nevertheless, I still felt I needed to come up with a response that I felt comfortable with.

My first reaction was to raise their awareness, and hopefully their sensitivity, that not EVERYONE celebrates Christmas. So I would tend to smile and say something cute like, “Thanks, but I’m a Buddhist” and then watch their reaction. As time went on, however, that began to feel anywhere from manipulative to aggressive.

Next, I tried neutrality. “Happy Holidays” I would cheerily offer and respond whenever the occasion arose to say something festive. This felt like a more inclusive response as Hanukkah often occurs near Christmas as well, not to mention Kwanzaa! Now, there’s nothing wrong with saying “Happy Holidays”, in fact, it’s quite “politically correct” to do so when initiating a greeting. However, when someone specifically says “Merry Christmas” to you first, it’s most often because that’s the holiday they celebrate at this time of the year. So saying “Happy Holidays” in response can still come off as a little, oh, shall we say, preachy?

Today, the evolution of my response has settled rather comfortably into wishing people “Happy Holidays” when I’m the first to speak and if they wish me a “Merry Christmas” first, I respond in kind. “Merry Christmas” because I truly wish that they enjoy Christmas if that’s the holiday they celebrate. I no longer feel the need as acutely as before to educate, sensitize, raise awareness, etc. through my response. It feels kinder to simply say “Merry Christmas”, “Happy Hanukkah”, or “Happy Kwanzaa” Rather than making anyone feel awkward by pointing out how we’re different, we can express the common joy that we feel by sharing the wish that everyone celebrate the holiday season in whatever ever way they choose.

Happy Holidays!

*Chris Montone is a former Catholic and now Buddhist who enjoys celebrating the Christmas holiday with his family and friends.

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