The Ethical Dilemma: Oh, It’s the Holidays

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Holiday Patience With Patients: I work in a clinic where the vast majority of patients are Christian.  At holiday season I am really offended, although I know they mean well, when patients wish me a Merry Christmas.  To assume everyone celebrates this holiday is rude and ignorant. Is there an appropriate response that will not insult patients? I have to be careful here.

—Not So Very Merry

Dear Merry,

This is probably the third most common irritation issue among atheists, after “bless you” for sneezes and the ubiquitous “have a blessed day.” There has been a great deal of discussion on the topic generally, but you address the question specifically in relation to your professional capacity, and so will I.

Nowadays the supposedly neutral go-to greeting is “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings,” but that’s getting backlash from the people who demand an acknowledgement of Christmas. Is there anyone in a position of authority in your clinic who can tell you if there’s any policy regarding the preferred response? If not, you have a range of options: You can simply take the course of least resistance (and most suppression of your own views) and reflect your greeter’s greeting, or just say “You too” or “Same to you.”  If that sticks in your craw, you can deflect with Happy Holidays/Season’s Greetings, or fast forward to “Happy New Year.” Or you can venture into something that expresses your views more explicitly, such as, “Thank you. I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I hope you enjoy yours.”

Bear in mind that your patients are your customers and they must be treated with deference. So please don’t ruffle feathers, or say or do anything that might lead to patients feeling disrespected and complaining to your management (or inciting complaints from your management, if they happen to be in the “Keep Christ in Christmas” camp). You don’t want to be responsible for getting your clinic on some “Naughty List” unless you know your organization is cool with that. Some people, like me, actually prefer to patronize businesses on the naughty list and avoid those rated nice.

Whatever you decide to do, it’s the thought that counts. The key aspect of the thought in this case, as you noted, is that your patients are wishing you well, not wishing to convert you or denigrate your beliefs. And, in your workplace, you should reciprocate. A clinic is not the place for debates about sacred vs. secular salutations.

Do I Have To Go To Church With My Partner? I’ve been in a long-term relationship with someone who self-identifies as agnostic, so we share similar beliefs. However, his parents are very religious and attending church is important for them. I’ve never spoken directly to his parents about my atheism, but I believe they have a general understanding that I lack a religion. The holidays are approaching fast and his parents want us to attend Christmas Mass. His parents are very disappointed that I have declined to attend service with them.

My partner will be attending Christmas mass with his parents out of tradition and respect for their wishes, yet I can’t muster up the attitude to want to go. The church is fairly liberal, so I don’t believe there will be any proselytizing. My partner thinks it’s hypocritical that I’ve traveled all around the world and witnessed a handful of religious ceremonies, but I’m resistant to Christian ceremonies. He wants me to attend just to appease his parents, but I feel like his parents are being disrespectful of my own spiritual (or lack thereof) beliefs.

I’m concerned that this issue could evolve into a bigger problem in our future, because participating in family activities is important to my partner. I’m torn because on one hand it is only once a year that they want me to attend church, but on the other hand I want them to respect my decision. Is this a battle worth fighting? How do nonbelievers draw boundaries without leading to larger religious contention?

—No Doesn’t Seem To Be The Right Answer

Dear No,

The only way nonbelievers can draw boundaries without leading to larger religious contention is to fly under the radar, which means either avoiding situations completely (like not spending Christmas with your partner’s family) or passively going along with the program. Otherwise you’ll be drawing a line, and either someone will have to cross it, or everyone will stay on their respective sides with no meeting in the middle.

There are two levels to your question: One is the specific issue at hand—whether you can decline to attend this Christmas Mass without alienating your partner’s family and him. The other is dealing with relationship conflicts in general. How you two handle this particular instance sets the stage for how you will handle other issues that arise in the future. It’s not just about going to church once, or even once a year—it’s also about dealing with each other’s expectations. You expect him to support your choice not to attend; he would prefer you to accompany him. The question is who accommodates whom?

When I was very young (too young), as a non-religious Jewish girl I married a non-religious Catholic boy. The first Christmas, I attended Midnight Mass with his family in a huge cathedral, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to experience all the pomp and circumstance. The next year I found myself feeling bored and uncomfortable and creeped out watching people “all we like sheep” swallowing flesh and blood in the form of communion. The third year, when it was time to get ready, I announced I would sit this one out since I’m not Catholic, and I’d already been there and done that, twice. To my surprise, my husband and his four younger siblings all announced they would skip Mass with me, while his mother sobbed about everyone going to hell. I tried but failed to convince the kids to go. I regretted serving as the catalyst for this mass rebellion (and my beloved mother-in-law’s misery) but not that I’d opted to stop participating in the annual ritual.

In your case, the first question is do you favor your own position or appease your partner and his family? The next question is what are the consequences if you stick to your guns and refuse to go? Does his family turn against you? Does he? And if you go along this time, what will you be tapped to go along with next? A church wedding? Raising kids in the faith? And then there’s the question of what are you willing to trade to hang on to the relationship, versus what you require of him in return?

On many levels, this incident is a crucial test. There is no right or wrong answer, just what feels right to you and to him (which, unfortunately, may not be the same thing). It’s your call whether to hold firm to your “no thanks” and see what happens, or attend mass and see what happens. Whatever you decide, keep your eyes open to the extent you find yourself flexing for him and the extent to which he flexes for you. If you feel you’re being asked to give in more than you can live with, and that it’s outweighing the positive aspects of being with your partner, it may be time to move on to someone who not only shares your agnosticism but also shares the courage of your convictions.

Christ-free Christmas Wishes For Christians: How can I wish my Catholic friends Merry Christmas without bringing Christ into it?

—Nice, Not Naughty

Dear Nice,

First of all, I think you really mean your Christian friends, whether they are Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, Greek or Russian Orthodox, Lutheran, Presbyterian—there are many brands of Christians, but almost all celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

The same advice applies here as to “Holiday Patience With Patients” above. The default option is simply to say “Merry Christmas” because that’s what your friends are celebrating, and as their friend your wish is for them to enjoy their holiday. You’re not bringing Christ into it—it’s already there. You’re just acknowledging their special occasion. If your friends were Jewish, wouldn’t you toss off a “Happy Chanukah” without a second thought? So why not a “Merry Christmas” for the Christians?

The second option is to greet them with “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy New Year.” This is fine if your friends are not the kind who take offense at secularized salutations. And if they are, and you care more about your friendship—and peace on earth—than about who scores points for whose side, just go along with Merry Christmas.

Remember it’s the thought that counts, and this is the time of year when people make an effort to think positive—not only with regard to our friends, but also for the world. Let’s focus on the big picture of warmth, kindness, compassion and generosity, and save the other stuff for other occasions.

Or how about “Cool Yule, y’all”—ten times fast, ideally to the tune of the Ukrainian Bell Carol?