In the U.S., political correctness has steered us toward saying "Happy Holidays!" instead of "Merry Christmas" because not everyone should be assumed to celebrate Christmas. In the legal arena, the Christmas debate is playing itself out with lawsuits against placing nativity scenes on government property as well as petitions to do so, resulting with Christians, atheists, Jews, Muslims, etc crying "discrimination!" What a mess.
On the other hand, in Malaysia because I am Caucasian everyone assumed I was celebrating Christmas, and in almost every shop I visited this past week, I was wished a sometimes awkward "Merry Christmas," which seemed ironic given the turmoil of that phrase back home. I thought of the wish as an acknowledgement that I decorated my condo in red and green and was dreaming of a white Christmas. But on Dec. 23 I was at the gym making small talk with the Muslim woman on the treadmill beside me, and she asked me what I was doing for Christmas. I told her where my husband and I were thinking of going for dinner, and she said "Oh, and then church?" I was taken back. "No, we're secular Christians" I replied, pretty sure that I'd made the term up, although "secular Muslim" is a common phrase around here, so I knew she'd get the idea. But her assumption that I was celebrating this Christian holiday as a religious holiday wasn't unreasonable in context, since an atheist wouldn't celebrate Hari Raya, etc, so I asked myself if I am not celebrating Christ's birthday, what am I celebrating?
I have never celebrated Christmas as a religious holiday, but I have celebrated it with a religious fervor. My family has long-standing traditions of homemade cinnamon rolls, opening gifts at 4:00 a.m., Christmas eve dinner with Granny, Christmas day dinner with Mamaw. Any deviation from our Christmas ritual would be treated as sacrilege. This year, however, I am away from home for the first time, and I didn't do any of those rituals. I put up a tiny tree and a wreath, wrapped presents for my husband and our cats, and we played the Starbuck's Christmas CD, but this holiday wasn't an orgy of desserts, shopping, and parties. There was really nothing to celebrate except my nostalgia for those things, and I think the Christmas crisis in the U.S. has nostalgia at its roots as well.
If you take out the sentimentality and nostalgia, you have a meaningless "Merry Christmas" which should cause no more offense than joy, a manger that should inspire no more loathing than love. Just something that some people do, that means different things to different people, a signifier that's lost its universal meaning but not its wide appeal. Perhaps Christmas can transcend its religious roots (which of course historically have pagan roots), making itself into another altar altogether, and to that I say "Cheers!"