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On holiday greeting cards, wishing friends "Happy Holidays" is thoughtful, not just P.C.

With holiday decorations already appearing in retail stores, it's nearly impossible -- even for non-Christians -- to escape the commercialism of Christmas.

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In early America, the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas because they thought it was a pagan holiday.

"I think that people get too upset about the commercialism of Christmas as a holiday because it was never entirely religious in origin," said Peter Thuesen, department chair and professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. "No one knows exactly when Jesus was born. No one knows exactly how Dec. 25 evolved as the birth date of Christ."

Christmas succeeded the pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice and Saturnalia, a festival created to honor the god Saturn. Christmas as a celebration came to replace these pagan festivals. In early America, the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas because they thought it was a pagan holiday, Thuesen said. Christmas is both religious and secular -- and Thuesen said the two are not sharply distinct.

"Many people who are not religious celebrate Christmas," he said. "They see it as a wintertime holiday to get together with family."

But with so much commercialism surrounding Christmas, other holidays such as Hanukkah, Eid, and Kwanza tend to be forgotten.

"The U.S. is the most diverse society on earth and thanks to immigration, virtually every culture is represented in some form," Thuesen said.

So what should you put on holiday greeting cards? Merry Christmas? Happy Hanukah? Happy Holidays?

"'Happy Holidays' is always safe," Thuesen said. "Merry Christmas doesn't work in multicultural settings because not everyone is Christian. To say 'Happy Holidays' is simply a way of showing multicultural sensitivity. I don't think the use of a generic phrase like this detracts in any way from the religious meaning of Christmas or any other holiday."

Thuesen said opposition to "Happy Holidays" for being too politically correct might diminish if people knew more about the traditions of other religions.

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