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Dec 23
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How Should a Buddhist Respond to “Merry Christmas”?

Santa Buddhaarticle by Chris Montone, Washington, D.C.

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.

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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 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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9 responses to “ How Should a Buddhist Respond to “Merry Christmas”? ”
  1. NameWithheld
    Dec 30, 2018

    I am “Christian-lite” (I.e., one who pays more attention to Christianity then and the holidays than other times of the year).

    Yes, since there is some striving for greater harmony during this time of the year it would probably be appreciated by other Christians to see this amplified (in a reflective way) during this part of the year. Kind of a positive feedback loop.

    To see other religions reflect back a positive attitude would provide a greater positive spin as to what the other religions are about. If the other religions would like to convert Christians over to their brand then my guess is that sweetness will be a greater attractant.

  2. I think that the story of Christmas is actually very compelling. I think there is something in all of us that resonates with thought of this infant bring us peace and light and love. To me the Christ Child is a manifestation of basic goodness, and what resonates in us is our own basic goodness. And that is something to celebrate.

  3. Sherab Gyatso
    Dec 29, 2014

    Merry Christmas! A genuine expression of kindness was proffered. Why not accept it for what it is?

    We were brought up in, and live in a Judeo-Christian culture. It infuses most of our thoughts. We see a picture of a figure leaving a group, and we think “that person is striking out, making a difference”, whereas a Chinese person would think “oh dear, that person has been excluded from the group”. Making a fuss about Christmas is truly missing the larger point: relative thoughts are preconditioned by our history, and are fetters we rarely notice… something George Orwell pointed to with his NewSpeak.

  4. Chris craig
    Dec 28, 2014

    Just visiting this website after reading an awesome book, “sit like a Buddha” by L Rinzler. I feel I must add my thoughts…..my Dharma Centre had an open house at this Christmas time, where we could take family or friends (who don’t practice) for an evening to celebrate thankfulness and generosity. We had a good meditation, then there was talk of “energies” at this time of year around the solstice, and “something bigger” going on. What a wonderful thought that an opening of the heart can truly happen to us all, no matter what religion or practice we have. If people feel closer, and are more caring and kind to each other, to even strangers at the store or on the street, if there is more peace than runs through us all…I say bring it on! And so, it’s not the Christmas Spirit as has been so famously advertised…..but something very real, it should be celebrated and expanded upon for the good of all.

  5. One more thing, if I may….it does seem too that Christmas day ushers in a sort of gap day where people feel they should be peaceful, filled with good will, and extend a good deal of generosity. So in that way a merry xmas is a moment to actually sense that wish extended broadly, so we could just bask in that in sending the merry christmas message back in a greeting and overlook any religious connotations of otherness.

  6. I’m glad you thought about it and went full circle. Of course it’s another matter when you see that some Shambhala centers actually put up a Christmas tree. I’m not kidding. It’s difficult to drop cultural and habitual patterns but somewhere, buried no doubt, is a talk that the Vidyadhara gave on the very topic. He saw it as mostly a holiday for children and created Children’s Day to fill the bill. It hasn’t really worked though. The idea was to have a separate Children’s shrine for that day. There are even instructions somewhere: 3 tiers, white, and so on. I always made one when my daughter was little. Personally, I think that people wishing Merry Christmas is similar to saying How Are You, it’s just done by rote.

    It’s just a weird time starting with Thanksgiving and lasts until at least January 5th when people seem to revert to where they were previously. The days are shorter during this cycle and there is less light. The Merry Christmas’ is a way that people have to express that they’d like to cheer up and not get depressed so gathering together, hanging lights and exchanging gifts is supposed to do that. Don’t get me started with the gift giving. Since the rest of the world is doing it we could just view it as a time to express appreciation. Light some lights. And when you go to a party don’t ask people what they do…as that is viewed as really rude in most of the rest of the world. There is no end to the giving and taking.

    If I may offer a suggestion: when someone says Merry Christmas just tonglen them on the spot, breathe out. Merry Merry Happy Happy is something I occasionally say. No one hears you anyway. When I hear Happy Holiday I just think of Billie Holiday and I started a new personal ritual to play her singing during this time. Cheers me up no end. Happy Holidaze. Happy New Year is also not the Tibetan or Jewish calendar new year. When it comes to new year’s I celebrate them all. And happy 4th of July.

  7. ralph asher
    Dec 26, 2014

    I answer “Merry Christmas.” Lighten up. It is not about you! If you really took refuge in Buddhism then you are cutting through ego clinging and therefore there is no “you” to protect from these words. Of course if the teachings are just therapy and used to help you become comfortable in samsara – then you can say you took refuge but in fact you did not. So simple these teachings.

  8. Dear Chris,
    I too went through something similar. After I took refuge, I did the whole no Christmas thing and resented having to buy presents for the adults in the family etc.
    Then I realized that it was a time for giving and came up with exactly the same solution you did, Happy Holidays if I do the greeting and respond Merry Christmas if that is what is offered. I also wear Red/Green items, a christmas tree pin and earings that were given to me many moons ago and generally embrace the holiday feeling this time of year. I also give at least one buddhist gift each year to the children, this year it was books on meditating for children (they all read now).
    Thank you for the article that validates my feelings of lightening up about the holidays. My other thing is vegetarianism, I made veggie meatballs and meatloaf and veggie sushi and cheesecake, all winners. Happy Holidays

  9. Jan Watson
    Dec 25, 2014

    Yes Chris – a good process and conclusion. Here is my story! When I had my book shop for 14 years in Halifax, I went thru the same thing, and one day a regular customer who knew I was Buddhist asked me what i did for the holidays. “Well “, I said, ” I give presents to my children, I eat a lot and drink a lot and spend good times with my friends, but I don’t go to church. What do you do?” she laughed and said, “So do I”
    So Happy Holidays!

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