When I was living in Tennessee I worked at Barnes & Noble. I had worked at one for four years in California as my first job and, although I didn’t want to return to retail, no one else seemed to be willing to hire me. There was no recession at the time, and I honestly began to think that people were biased because I was from California. I needed a job, and Barnes & Noble was hiring. The managers were impressed, and offered me an open fiction lead position right away.
As you might imagine, the holiday season is a retail worker’s nightmare, and bookstores are no exception. I was on registers almost all day and frequently had to miss breaks. After counting the tills at the end of the night, I helped maintain the ruins of the trashed store so the opening crew came into a brand new-looking store every morning and could focus on restocking bookshelves and new product placement.
But the holiday season in Tennessee brought with it a new kind of torture, for the non-believer: Christians, adamant that they alone be acknowledged in customary greeting.
I never thought that people would get pissed off at the phrase “happy holidays”, but, believe me, many christians do. (I’ve yet to have complaints from anyone else, so spare me the lecture on being biased toward christians, only.) We were required to say this at the end of our transactions, just as we were required to ask if they had or were interested in buying a membership card. It was our job.
I personally wasn’t opposed to saying, “happy holidays”. Like most Americans (and even – gasp! – most atheists), I celebrate holiday get togethers with friends and family and give gifts. Although the name “Christ” has been tacked on, these are rituals that existed long before his supposed existence. I do not say “merry Christmas” because I don’t believe that Christ died for my sins and I am not celebrating his Birthday; it really is as simple as that. And I also don’t like it when people in stores say it to me – they know nothing of my beliefs (or lack thereof) and have no right to assume that I am celebrating their holiday. In this way, I feel somewhat like it is being shoved in my face but, hey, I’m not going to be a snippy asshole about it.
I noticed that a couple christian cashiers in our store opted to say, “merry Christmas” instead of “happy holidays”, anyway. This grated my nerves quite a bit, but most customers seemed excited that they went that route. (We are talking the bible belt, here!) I didn’t understand why they couldn’t say, “happy holidays” – would it be insulting to Christ? It just seemed an unnecessary act to prove some point, as far as I was concerned.
But much more importantly than that was the fact that some people literally got quite angry that I didn’t say it. Time and time again I heard, “why can’t you say, “merry Christmas”?!” or the even more insulting “they don’t allow you to say “merry Christmas”?!” which seemed to automatically assume I was a christian, oppressed by the stranglehold of my employer’s contribution to the fictional “war on Christmas”.
At first I met these demands with a calm, “it may be insulting to non-christians”. But some people continued their hostility at such a statement or the inference that non-christians even existed anywhere on planet earth, so I began to politely add, “like me – I am an atheist.”
Most people’s reaction to this was sheer terror, as if the person they were just happy to banter and chuckle with had become some sort of ghoul. Some would run to their car and return with crap from their church or tracts. Some offered to pray for me. Very few of them reacted by just letting me be. They all assumed something was terribly wrong with me that needed fixing.
I did not interact with most of these people. I accepted their tracts and added them to a pile (literally) in my drawer. (Later they would bring some unintentional joy – I’d read them, write my more realistic and comedic interpretations between the lines of text or in the borders, and leave them in the break room, where coworkers, tired of the same antagonistic customers could enjoy and laugh at the rewrites — often saying it made their day.) When they offered to pray for me, I simply said thanks. Prayer doesn’t work, and part of retail is biting your tongue, anyway, so I left off adding that them assuming I wasn’t “whole” was insulting and just went about my day.
What I found interesting about interaction with these and some other (typically fundamentalist) christians, however, was a notion that, if I just read a certain bible verse or a tract or even the bible itself, I would magically be changed. As a kid, one of my favorite books was a children’s book of bible stories, put out by jehovah’s witnesses. How I ever got this book in the first place is beyond me (although, I’d enjoy another copy, to read again, today!), but I enjoyed it and found the illustrations lovely. I read it as I would read any bedtime stories and, although they didn’t hold a candle to the Hindu god and traditional Japanese bedtime stories my grandpa told me or even Greek mythology, I nonetheless appreciated them.
I have read every single chick tract – I went to their website once and downloaded each one. I have read the bible in entirety. I am accosted on a regular basis by religious people who share bible verses that nonetheless do not affect me, and am more than willing to share a few with them that should rightly repulse any truly moral person. I do not need christians’ help, I need their acceptance. I need them to accept that I will be what I am, and that what I am is despite embracing their challenge to read their texts, and that there is nothing wrong with me because I do not share their faith or worldview.
So this holiday season, my challenge for christians is to humble themselves with the reality that the winter solstice is the reason for the season and that the best response to “happy holidays” is just a “thank you” or “you, too” – it is not a moral quest sent from god challenging you to assert your faith but merely, a message that all people can benefit from, rather than just a third of them.
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