While running errands a few days back, I noticed how warm, heartfelt, and sincere every clerk and fellow shopper was in wishing me and one another “Happy New Year.” I felt the same easy warmth in replying. On reflection, I think the feeling came from the basic sincerity, universality, and specificity of the sentiment.
These qualities set the wish apart from the carefully phrased and cautiously offered greetings of the previous six weeks. If I say “Happy Thanksgiving” am I unintentionally dissing Indigenous Peoples or supporting colonialist arrogance? If I say “Merry Christmas” am I offending non-Christians, even some I know who would be even more offended not to be in on the invitations to a Christmas party? If I say “Happy Holidays” am I diffusing my sentiments in a general way that does not acknowledge the special qualities that Hanukkah, Milad un Nabi, Winter Solstice, or Kwanzaa may have for the individual I am greeting? Am I relegating their holy days or their culture to the cumulative “other”? The Latin adjective barbarus, -a, -um, after all, is translated “foreign, strange, or odd.” The earlier Greek form “barbaroi” means literally “bearded ones,” referring primarily to the Greeks’ foreign enemy the Persians, who were fully bearded while Greeks were clean-shaven or had neatly trimmed beards. Essentially the term connoted “not like us,” and therefore “beneath us.” Or, even worse, am I denying my own culture and faith by not affirming that the reason that I am merry or happy (or tired or overscheduled or harassed) is that I am a Christian rejoicing in the nativity of my savior?
Why shouldn’t I be able to affirm that specific feeling, even to those who do not share my faith? Has America, a nation of people of different heritages, ethnicities, and cultures, become so socially Balkanized that each of us takes offense at any affirmation of a different set of traditions, at any joy based on something other than what makes us joyful? So often of late I sense that anger and resentment, rather than kindness and supportiveness, control our reactions to one another.
I hope we as a culture can turn that around in 2016. As we begin on common ground, let’s unite in truly, deeply wishing one another joy, elation, and contentment in a year that almost has to be better than 2015. Happy New Year, everybody!
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016