Christmas Labels

Malibu, CA

I understand why many wish me a “Happy Holidays” in public settings, and I am glad they wish me well at this time of year. I must confess, though, that the greeting puzzles me, and I am reluctant to offer it even to strangers—I don’t know how to celebrate “Holidays” except by celebrating Christmas, and I suspect that no one else really celebrates something they call “Holidays”. 

If you are celebrating some religious observance other than Christmas at this time of year, I would much rather wish you a Happy whatever-it-is-you-celebrate (Chanukah, even solstice if that is what you really celebrate). If you are celebrating Christmas stripped of all religious meaning (Christmas constituted solely by snowmen, lights, food, and gifts, but no creche), you almost certainly call it Christmas and won’t mind if I wish you a Merry one. If the good will in my “Merry Christmas” greeting offends you because you reject its religious meaning and do not wish to accept a well-meant greeting inspired by its spirit, then why should I not respond to your crotchetiness in the same way that Scrooge’s nephew responded to Scrooge, with a “Merry Christmas”? 

Nevertheless, I accept the greeting among strangers, for what it is—a generous wish that I enjoy December and its celebrations, whatever they might be. However, I am particularly surprised when I am wished a “Happy Holiday” at my workplace, Pepperdine University. What is most jarring about “Happy Holidays” at Pepperdine is not the washed-out vagueness of the greeting, but the fact that Pepperdine is a Christian school, full of Christians celebrating Christmas.  Why would any Christian celebrating Christmas, who knows that I am a fellow Christian celebrating Christmas, wish me “Happy Holidays”?

I understand why a co-worker might wish the perhaps-Jewish, perhaps-Muslim, perhaps-secular stranger a “Happy Holiday,” but why me? It is the habit of censoring ourselves among ourselves that leaves me non-plussed.

To be fair to my Pepperdine Holiday well-wishers, they simply may have adopted the habit of wishing everyone Happy Holidays; perhaps they don’t want to waste mental energy tailoring their greetings to each person they meet, and would rather offer a noncommittal one-size-fits-all greeting rather than risk offending those who prefer unspecific generalized well-wishing this time of year. Nevertheless, the extra effort to identify Christmas-celebrators and to greet them appropriately—as people who share the celebration of the world-changing Incarnation—is a matter of some cultural urgency.  It is one thing to accept the perhaps defensible discretion one might exercise in public among strangers, but among ourselves (and we are many!) the Christian mystery of the Incarnation ought to be celebrated outright in our language, in our observances, and in our greetings. 

This habit of adopting in private (within communities of faith or local culture) language and practices which are prudent outside of our circles is unfortunately common, and is an inescapable challenge of living in a pluralistic world. I have found myself in seminars and informal conversations among Catholics in which analyses and insights which are grounded in Catholic revelation and tradition were spurned as “sectarian” and ineffectual because they translate imperfectly into the language of “public reason” made necessary by engagement with a secular and pluralistic culture. 

For example, Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of the place of material goods in the divine plans for human happiness will of course be unconvincing to someone who rejects Thomas’s Catholic theological and philosophical framework. Nevertheless, theological analyses of consumption ground a Catholic worldview which can be brought to bear on secular conversations only if those analyses are first fully explored in Catholic context. Must our thoughts be “secular” even when we deliberate among ourselves? Of course not. If a Christian intellectual does not allow himself to think Christianly, even to himself, then he will adopt even in his own thoughts the limited worldview of whatever secular discipline he subscribes to. The secular order will as a result be robbed of an important source of reasoned reflection.

The world needs Christians celebrating Christmas—not just in churches, not just in families, but meeting in the marketplace, sharing the friendship of Christmas greetings, encouraging each other. I do not wish everyone I meet a Merry Christmas, but I try to err on the side of Christmas: I do not try to offend, but I’d rather risk offending someone with a well-meaning “Merry Christmas” than miss out on the opportunity to wish a “Merry Christmas” to someone who shares my joy and celebration of the Christmas mystery of love, or to someone who at least does not mind being wished a Merry Christmas this time of year.

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  1. When I was a kid in the 60’s/70’s I generally assumed that when someone said “Happy Holidays” or you got a card that said it, the person was simply combining the Christmas and New Year’s greetings into one. “Happy Holidays” was thus the equivalent of “Season’s Greetings,” shorthand for “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” I do not recall there being a necessarily secular (and certainly not sinister) connotation to the phrase. That’s only come along with the rise of PC. In that sense the phrase may very well not mean what it used to years ago, but having grown up with it, I still would be hesitant automatically to ascribe ill-will, ignorance, or PC to its use.

  2. Contrarily, I have no problem with someone wishing me, “Happy Holidays”, for to me what they are really saying is, “Happy Holy Days”. “The phrase, “Season’s Greetings”. is more problematic. It recalls too much of the revolutionary mot, “Cultural Greetings, Citizen.”

    Somewhere else on the ‘Net, I read there are really two Christmases we celebrate. One derives from Saturnalia and involves evergreen, presents, and drunken orgies (!). The other celebrates the birth of Christ. In our culture, it is easy to conflate the two. Since Christians appropriated December 25 for our Holy Day, it only seems fair to allow the pagans to have theirs.

  3. What people generally mean by “the Holidays” is Secular Christmas – you know, the one presided over by the Jolly Fat Elf and whose season (preceding the Christian one and displacing Advent) is bookended by High Holy Shopping Days, and all that razzamatazz – which has little if anything to do with the Incarnation. I’m all for avoiding the conflation of the two. But yes, self-censorship among Christians is a little weird.

    I, for one, will wish you, my brother Andrew, a holy and joyous Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity.

  4. I remember growing up in Virginia, where everyone seemed to be Christian, hearing “Happy Holidays” as “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” Perhaps it still means that to some. By the way, here in Ventura County (a red turning purple suburb of LA) I have heard almost nothing but “Merry Christmas” from store clerks. Those who don’t wish me Merry Christmas (in Target and Starbucks) do not wish me “Happy Holidays” — they wish me a great day, a good weekend, etc. Most of my “Happy Holiday” greetings have come from Pepperdine staff and colleagues! I don’t think I’ll wish anyone a Happy Saturnalia, but Merry Christmas to all! May your Holy Day be nothing like an orgy, but very much like a feast. Peace and good will during the Christmas season, which starts as the rest of the world stops celebrating it, and ends one week after the garbage trucks stop accepting Christmas trees in the trash.

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