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What is the appropriate salutation this time of year? Is it "Merry Christmas," or the less religious and increasingly commercial "Happy Holidays"?

I only ask because I said "Merry Christmas" to an older woman at the store this week and she fired back with, "Forget Jesus. I'll have a happy holiday instead."

This alarmed the woman's grown daughter, who took her mother by the arm and hurried her away, saying, "Don't get nasty with him. He'll make fun of you in the newspaper."

"I don't care if he does," the old woman shouted. "I'm not letting anyone force their damn religion on me."

The woman doesn't have to worry about me getting even with her in the newspaper. I'm a professional journalist. It would be unprincipled of me to call out her mother by name, address and phone number in my column.

Being the mature person I am, I prefer handling such misunderstandings discreetly. Herriman is small enough that I'll run into the woman again. And every time I do, I'll be saying "Merry Christmas" to her, even if it's July.

Hey, when you show just how little it takes to wind you into a jerk, all you're doing is advertising yourself as an endless source of entertainment to people like me.

But the situation did make me wonder how many people wish someone a Merry Christmas in the spirit of Christianity. How many actually intend it as a reminder that it's Jesus' birthday (even though historically it really isn't)?

A properly conducted scientific poll seemed in order. Of the eight people I surveyed, including myself and two homeless guys near The Tribune, only two said they intended "Merry Christmas" as a religious greeting.

Five people claimed it really meant anything from "have a cool time" to "did you get me something , too?"

Two said "Merry Christmas" was just a way of acknowledging the presence of other people during the holiday.

Finally, one of the homeless guys disqualified himself with, "I'll say 'Merry Christmas' for two dollars."

So, it appears that "Merry Christmas" is not intended as a religious challenge by most people who say it. I'm betting the same thing is true of "Happy Kwanza" or "Have a bitchin' Hanukkah."

If a Hindu person says "Namaste" to me when I say "Merry Christmas" to him — as happened on Trax a few days ago — it doesn't ruin my day. I'm grateful for it.

Getting upset over the way people express their best wishes for you in some religious context is petty and juvenile. It takes so little to accept them for the way in which they were offered.

Letting casual religious references bother us is also impractical in close relationships. For example, It doesn't bother me when a very agnostic Sonny tells me to "go to hell" even though that's technically a religious place.

Likewise, Sonny just laughs when I shut my eyes and screech "Holy [crap]!" when he's driving us down Bruin Point in a rainstorm.

There may come a day when it's considered rude to say "adios" when departing, or "bless you" when someone sneezes (provided they don't get any of it on you), but we're not there yet.

Until then, please have a very "Merry Christmas/Hanukkah/Namaste."

Robert Kirby can be reached at or