10 Holiday Controversies

Should You Say 'Happy Holidays' or 'Merry Christmas'?
A 'Merry Christmas' sign hangs on the door of a Sears store on Dec. 8, 2005, in Niles, Illinois. Sears put the word 'Christmas' back into some of their holiday promotions after a conservative group voiced their concerns. Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Whether department store clerks wish their customers a "Merry Christmas," "Happy Holidays," or "Season's Greetings" seems to be an issue that gets under some people's craws. For years, Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly kept a list of which department stores had their clerks say "Merry Christmas" and which ones said "Happy Holidays."

In the past 50 years or so, many stores have moved away from the standard "Merry Christmas" as people have become more sensitive to the fact that folks of other religions or no religion live in the U.S., too. Plus "Happy Holidays" can encompass Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and the New Year without requiring a switch in greeting.

However, some Christians see the switch as a way of marginalizing the role of Christianity in America's public lives. After all, why act as if we're celebrating a generic holiday when it's actually Christmas?

The Public Religion Research Institute went to the trouble of checking to see what "real people" prefer and the results weren't quite as expected. People living in the Midwest and West preferred "Merry Christmas" while people living in the Northeast and South liked "Happy Holidays" better. The reason seems to be that African-Americans, who make up a large portion of the Bible Belt South, preferred "Happy Holidays" even though most are very religious. And in the secularized West (think California and Oregon), the term "Merry Christmas" has been stripped of its religious connotations [source: FiveThirtyEight].