Teaching Sensitivity to Cultural Differences at Christmastime

As I was leaving the post office the other day, I realized I had just responded automatically to the holiday wish the postal worker gave me: Merry Christmas! “Merry Christmas to you too!” I replied. Later that evening at my daughter’s winter concert held at the local public school, I found it interesting that those on stage wished us “Happy Holidays!” while I was hearing families in the audience wish other families “Merry Christmas!”

How confusing this might be for a non-native speaker! Some Americans write “Season’s Greetings” as an alternative, but I never hear those words said in a face-to-face exchange. So the choice really comes down to Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays. If our students wish to offer holiday greetings, what should we advise them? If they receive a greeting, what’s the best way to respond?

I decided to address this in a YouTube lesson on American culture. I also included relevant vocabulary, such as inclusive and secular. With potentially “sticky” topics, I think it’s best to be open and positive and share our thoughts rather than lecture on what’s right or wrong. I wrapped my video presentation in a thick layer of goodwill (another word I presented). My main points:

  • There are holidays other than Christmas at the end of the year. We can recognize this fact.
  • There are religious and secular celebrations of Christmas. We can accept that the holiday has different meanings for people, but we can share the holiday cheer.
  • When greetings are offered in goodwill, then people typically respond positively to them regardless of their own beliefs and practices. That said, “Merry Christmas” is safe to use when you know the other person celebrates Christmas. “Happy Holidays” can work as a more inclusive greeting.
  • A natural response to a friendly holiday wish is “Thank you. You too.”

I also addressed use of the abbreviation “Xmas.” Personally, I don’t use it much. I see it on store signs that don’t allow for a lot of letters and in texting, where abbreviations are common.

If you’d like to discuss this question surrounding holiday greetings, please check out my YouTube lesson. I also included some related links in the comments. There are interesting infographics, for example, a map of the U.S. that shows preferences for one holiday greeting over another. I chose to share my personal experiences both in western Pennsylvania and in my small New England town. If you’re in a position to add more observations, I think it would help paint a fuller picture for language learners.

Do you like to bring cultural diversity into your classroom around this time of the year? Feel free to share your ideas.


Photo retrieved from the public domain at https://pixabay.com/

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