A couple of weeks ago,  my 17-year-old neighbour hailed me from across the

street, “Hey, Ken. Happy Hanukkah!” After a moment of stunned surprise, I replied, “And to you!”

The thing is, I don’t happen to be Jewish. Neither is my chipper young friend, whose name is Ali. He and his family come from a Muslim background, and proudly refer to their country of origin as Persia. But his cheery greeting brightened an otherwise mediocre day and made me feel like passing on a bit of warmth to others.

For several years now, there has been a lot of blather back and forth about whether or not the familiar “Merry Christmas” should give way to some safe, sanitized, politically-correct alternative greeting such as “Happy Holidays”.

The arguments get particularly intense when public spaces are involved. Is it OK to call it a Christmas tree, or should it be deemed a Seasonal Arboreal Emblem?

In a country that pays at least lip service to the notion of separating church from state, should any overt religious symbols be permitted in publicly-funded schools, hospitals, legislatures, or municipal buildings? Is it acceptable to allow some, but not others? Who gets to decide, and how?

There is ample evidence in Canada and elsewhere of how corrosive that debate can become.

It may be a cop-out, but as someone who doesn’t harbour strong religious beliefs of any kind, I’m willing to let wiser heads decide where to draw the line between cultural imperialism and appropriate cultural accommodation.

The bottom line is that I’m on the squishy-liberal side that says, “Let’s celebrate anything that expands the world’s supply of joy.”

Fact is, despite some specific religious or cultural differences, there’s a remarkable similarity in how folks celebrate life, especially during the darkest days of the year. They do it by sharing special meals, singing traditional songs, telling traditional stories, offering special prayers, and exchanging gifts and greetings.

From the Hindu Festival of Lights to the fireworks of Chinese New Year, the symbolic use of candles, torches and bonfires has been a common way to assert our human desire to cut through the gloom and seek enlightenment, camaraderie and happiness.

Given their geographic location, it’s no surprise that Yukoners feel a special affinity for both winter and summer solstices, and joyously observe them with festivals or vigils of one sort or another. Similarly, they revel in burning away the blues of winter to mark the spring equinox.

At the everyday level, the various cultures that make up the Yukon’s mosaic largely go about celebrating their various special holidays as they choose, and some have made wonderful overtures to welcome others to share their observances.

Yet, there often seems to be a lingering hesitancy to acknowledge someone else’s time of celebration verbally.

It’s saddening that anyone might take offence when someone sincerely says “Happy Diwali”, “Eid Mubarak”, “Happy Hanukkah”, “Happy Kwanza”, “Have a Cool Yule, Dude”, “Kung Hei Fat Choi”, or even “Merry Christmas”.

Such an expression, cheerfully offered at the appropriate time, is not a command. It is a greeting, a wish, a blessing, a gift, a mitzvah. And that’s something we all can use.

So, go ahead. If it’s in your heart, as it was in my young friend Ali’s, just say it.