A simple phrase that's spawned a lot of anger and hostility despite being such a peaceful phrase. I know that in Christian-centric America it can be hard to remember about other religions and traditions, but more is happening in December than just the celebration of Jesus's birth. Of course, if you're addressing someone who you know for fact celebrates Christmas, then it's perfectly fine to say, "Merry Christmas." If you're not sure or are just trying to extend the winter spirit to a stranger, "Happy Holidays" is a good default.
I've been talking to my non-Christmas celebrating friends this week to find out about some of their traditions. One of my closest friends is Jewish, so she shared her Hannukah festivities and traditions with me. This year Hannukah starts on the evening of December 24th, and it goes until January 1st. Evenings are very sacred to the Jewish people because Shabbat happens in the evening. Hannukah came to be after a man named Juda led his people into war. Juda and his people took cover in a hut that only had enough lantern oil to last them one night, but ended up lasting eight nights (hence the celebration lasting for eight days). The menorah is significant to the Jewish holiday because it represents the lantern lasting all week. Every time a candle is lit, you're supposed to say a prayer. The candles are placed in the menorah from right to left, but lit from left to right. My friend also shared with me that her specific synagogue has a Shabbat dinner before Hannukah where they make latkas (potato pancakes) and play with the dreidel. I found the story of the dreidel to be the coolest thing because it's basically like a child's version of poker (as she said). Instead of getting money, the winners get Gelt (chocolate coins). Every side of the dreidel has a different Hebrew letter, and as a whole, the dreidel tells a story. Overall, it means "a great miracle happened there," meaning the miracle of the oil lasting. My friend also shared something specific to her family, as her father celebrates Christmas, so they're a mixed holiday family. They give little gifts every night of Hannukah and on Christmas, they get a "big gift." Usually, Hannukah precedes Christmas, but this year they overlap.
I also talked to one of my friends about pagan winter traditions, since a lot of "Christmas" things were borrowed from pagan tradition after the Christianization of Europe. Interestingly enough, the yule log ultimately derives from Germanic pagan tradition. It became widespread after the French made a Christmas tradition of it. Midwinter, or the Winter Solstice, has also held many importances throughout history and the early civilizations. People who still observe these ancient winter celebrations coincide with the rest of the winter holidays, as the solstice is the 21st of December.
Kwanzaa is another popular winter holiday celebrated around this time, which is celebrating its 50th-anniversary foundation this year! This year it goes from December 26th to January 1st (again, slightly overlapping Christmas, like Hannukah). Kwanzaa was started "to reaffirm the communitarian vision and values of African culture and to contribute to its restoration among African peoples in the Diaspora, beginning with Africans in America and expanding to include the world African community" (via The Offical Kwanzaa Site). The founder, Dr. Maulana Karenga, is professor and chair of African Studies at California State Long Beach. He basically founded the holiday to be an ancient and living tradition that reflects the best of African philosophy and their practice in its reaffirmation of community. I highly recommend reading all about Kwanzaa on the official website and learning about one of this countries most celebrated holidays.
Although Muslims recognize Jesus as a prophet and have a huge amount of respect for him, only a few celebrate Christmas. If Muslims were to celebrate the birth of any important figure, it would be that of Muhammad, however, that is not part of their Islamic tradition. The biggest Muslim celebration is Ramadan, which took place from June 6th to July 5th of this past year.
There are probably many other events around the world that have significance to the winter season, but these are the biggest to American culture. I encourage everyone to take a few moments to read all of the links I have included and learn about your fellow American's holidays and traditions.
So, before you get all up in arms about someone wishing you a "Happy Holiday," remember that there are other events and celebrations happening during this month and they're just trying to be respectful of what you celebrate.