For years, "Happy Holidays" has been seen as a neutral, eminently inclusive greeting. Well, for a few days before Christmas, it seemed it was not inclusive enough - at least in the Plateau Mont-Royal, where the merchants' association of Mont-Royal Avenue, the main commercial street of the area, coined a new expression: "Happy December."
"Le Plateau" is a gentrified district in Montreal where the real estate is as expensive as its young bobo population is left-of-centre. So reporters were quick to jump to the conclusion that the good merchants of the Plateau, reaching a higher level of political correctness, had decided the word "Holidays" might be offensive to those whose religion have no special event in December.
The initiative of the Plateau shopkeepers drew much heart-felt criticism.
"In Quebec, we want so much to be inclusive that we end up excluding ourselves," quipped the president of a nationalist group, the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal. Others rightly pointed out that banning such an innocuous expression as "Happy Holidays" made a mockery of the much-needed virtues of tolerance and openness. Indeed, too much zeal is counterproductive. It gives fodder to the anti-immigration xenophobes who resent pluralism and wax nostalgic for the bygone days of homogeneous societies.
In the end, however, it turned out to be a tempest in a tea pot. The reason behind the slogan made sense: Special activities had been organized by the merchants to attract consumers between the dates of Dec. 1 and Dec. 24. The misunderstanding came about when instead of providing the obvious explanation, the president of the shopkeepers' association waded into ideological territory, saying that in "today's Montreal" one has to be "inclusive." "Some people don't celebrate Christmas," he said, "but everybody celebrates the month of December." This sounded really odd: Why would people "celebrate December" rather than October or March, if it were not for the Christmas holiday?
The fact is that Christmas has become an international holiday, an event where lapsed Christians, atheists and people from other religions join with practising Christians to celebrate something - love, friendship, goodwill, the miracle of birth, the story of Jesus, whatever.
A friend who works in Vietnam reports that in this Buddhist and communist country, Christmas is a time of intense socializing and commercial activity. Another friend, a Jew born in the United States, recalls how he enjoyed singing the Christmas carols in his American public grade school. His parents didn't celebrate Christmas, but to please their kids, they used to have a "Christmas tree" at home.
But "Le Plateau" had other surprises in store. In the last municipal election, all the district's wards elected members of a fledgling, ecological party named "Projet Montréal" whose leader, Richard Bergeron, is a converted Muslim. Ironically, the e-mail that carried Mr. Bergeron's electronic greeting card was titled "Merry Christmas" - a truly daring move in a province where political leaders would rather swallow live frogs than be photographed near a Christmas tree.
The card, though, is in keeping with the program of Projet Montréal, which intends to limit snow removal to "encourage" people to stop using their cars. It shows a picture of a Plateau street toward the end of the 19th-century: two horse-drawn carriages, huge snow banks, a few people walking on a snow-covered street, the Plateau as an old-time village.
Thankfully, Christmas has come and gone so I won't have to walk on eggshells deciding which greeting to send my readers. Let me just wish you all a very Happy New Year. Oops. Did I offend those who go by, say, the Jewish or the Islamic or the Chinese calendar? Sorry, sorry, sorry.