Cape Breton may be the last place in the country where people unabashedly wish you a Merry Christmas at this time of year. Not Happy Holidays, I mean, but actual, full-throated, unironic, “Merry Christmas.”
I hear it a lot at the university because December exams (Christmas exams as we say at CBU, though they do not feel like a gift to the students or the faculty) because the end of the examination period quite clearly marks the last time we will see each other, at least until January, depending on the course. After ten years, it still makes me a bit uncomfortable.
When I was a student in Ontario, I made a point of not saying “Merry Christmas” to my professors because I usually did not know them well enough to presume that they did celebrate Christmas, and I did not want to cause offense. So I usually said, “have a good holiday” which worked for people celebrating Hannukah or Christmas or whatever, but could also be taken to meant the time off between semesters.
My students seem to have no such compunctions, and every time I hear them say “Merry Christmas,” I wonder if they have considered whether I might be, for instance, Jewish. And if I were, wouldn’t “Merry Christmas” be a bit insensitive? I’m pretty sure that they don’t think about that, and if they did, I’m pretty sure they would reply that they wouldn’t be offended by “Happy Hanukkah.” But that’s only because most of us here in Cape Breton are Christians or (like me) descended from those who were. “Happy Hanukkah” doesn’t bother us, because we have never felt marginalized by the domination of Hanukkah in December, or by the domination (and oppression) of Christian culture in general. I wonder how my Jewish colleagues feel about this.
And this is to say nothing of other groups who do not celebrate Christmas such as Muslims, and, perhaps surprisingly, some Christians. As it happens, I do celebrate Christmas as a winter festival, but it makes me uncomfortable when students assume that I do, because I feel like they are making me part of that in-group where it is assumed that everyone has the same values and traditions.
What should you say to your prof as you leave the exam room? Something friendly. “Have a nice break,” or “see you next semester,” or steal my “good holiday” line.
Just not “Merry Christmas.”