Can employees be banned from saying ‘Merry Christmas’?

Starbucks holiday cups.
Missing on Starbucks cups were Christmas sayings and imagery that had previously appeared. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Harkening back to the tag line from Jaws, just when you thought it was safe to say to “Merry Christmas,” political correctness has run amok, again.

The holiday season has become a time of holiday trees, happy holiday greetings and other inoffensive words that seem to offend everyone and no one at the same time.

Starbucks was first out of the gate this year after the coffee giant released its annual festive red cups in November. Missing were Christmas sayings and imagery that had previously appeared on the cups.

The Internet went apoplectic, fueled by a video posted by Joshua Feuerstein, who refers to himself as a “former evangelist turned social media personality.” Feuerstein responded to the new cups by saying that Starbucks “hates Jesus.”

According to The Atlantic Magazine, Feuerstein also suggested that Starbucks employees are not allowed to say Merry Christmas to patrons. 

In its defence, Starbucks made it clear this was not the case; employees are free to use whatever seasonal greeting they choose, including Merry Christmas.

The question still remains though: can employers stop their employees from saying Merry Christmas?

According to Toronto lawyer Marcus McCann, “Employers have a broad right to direct their employees, and that’s the starting point,“ states McCann in a blog post. “There are limits on that right, of course. For example, an employee has a right to refuse unsafe work. That’s a limit. The human rights code provides a limit as well, and if the employee had a claim, it would likely be under the Code.”

“There may be a narrow window for an evangelical Christian who claimed that proselytizing was a core part of her religious belief,” McCann wrote. “I haven’t had any cases land on my desk in which an employee was required to say ‘happy holidays’, but if the evangelical employee were my client, that’s what I’d be arguing.”

Hurt feelings and religion seem to be a hallmark of the season, so it isn’t surprising that an employee could conceivably be banned from saying the C-word, or conversely insist on saying it at work, arguing a breach of their human rights.

The Simpsons’ Krusty the Clown may be a fictional character, but his coverall greetings still ring true: “Have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Chanukah, a Krazy Kwanzaa, a Tip Top Tet, and a solemn, eventful Ramadan. Now, over to my god, our sponsors.”
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