Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas

And so the debate rages on; is "Happy Holidays" an attempt to wipe Christ out of Christmas and commercialize the holiday? And are those who wish a non-Christian a "Merry Christmas" injecting religion where it's not wanted?

Evidently it's not occurred to anyone that the "holidays" in "Happy Holidays" might not refer to Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but to Christmas and New Year's Day. In our culture, as in most, the new year is celebrated with tradition. But the holiday's proximity to Christmas, coupled with the (religious) tradition of celebrating the pre-Christmas season as part of Christmas, leaves only a week in which to explicitly wish people a "Happy New Year." Since we don't see everyone to whom we'd like to wish well during that week, saying "Happy Holidays" (meaning both "Merry Christmas" and "Happy New Year") makes perfect sense.

Not only that, but a lot of things that are popularly perceived as attempts to take religion out of Christmas are not what they seem. Take, for example, the outrage we see at the use of "Xmas." The X in "Xmas" isn't some callous and deliberate attempt to excise the word "Christ" from "Christmas;" it's the Greek letter chi, initial of "Christ." "Xmas" is just an abbreviation for a word commonly used. People who think Christ is being maliciously cut out of Xmas probably don't realize the irony that the fish, the early Christian symbol they plaster on their cars with abandon to proclaim their Christianity, doesn't contain the name of Christ either-- and not only that, but when it does contain a Greek word, it's usually the Greek word for "fish" (ichthos). Things that don't contain the letters C-H-R-I-S-T whenever they could aren't necessarily anti-Christian.

Most non-Christians aren't offended by the greeting "Merry Christmas," and neither should a Christian should be offended by being wished a "Happy Hanukkah" or a "Blessed Solstice". These occasions are met with these sorts of greetings because they are happy occasions for their celebrants. We should all rejoice that our friends are having a happy time of year, and it remains a fact that eight days out of the year constitute Hanukkah or that the winter solstice occurs on the 21st of December. We don't hesitate to wish someone a "Happy Birthday" on whatever day that might be, so I don't see any reason why we can't all spread good wishes to others for any other day of the year that's happy to us.

Now, this situation is complicated by the fact that the Christians have a longstanding tradition of celebrating the season before Christmas, which used to be known as Advent but is now usually called "the Christmas season." While most other holidays are greeted specially only on that day or for a few days before (when was the last time you said "Happy Halloween" before October 27th or so?), Christmas has long been greeted specially for an entire month before the actual holiday-- but we should remember that this is a cultural custom, not a religious one.

I've pontificated before on the distinction between religion and culture, although mostly in the context of Utah Mormons who fail to distinguish between their religion and their cultural customs. The distinction between the religious and the cultural, though, is an important (if difficult) one to make, because people tend to ascribe religious significance to their cultural practices (witness the "story of the candy cane" symbolism). And Christmas' religious traditions are deeply intertwined with cultural traditions, such as Christmas trees, wreaths, Santa, and the like, some of which derive from older, pagan religious traditions. There are many people who celebrate a cultural Christmas without celebrating the religious Christmas. My father's parents did just this when, despite their Jewish heritage, they put up a tree and gave presents on the 25th like all their neighbors did. These people are using the former pagan religious traditions, which have been "made over" into cultural traditions and "re-made-over" into Christian religious traditions and are now being "re-re-made-over" into American cultural traditions.

Ultimately, traditions mean whatever we think they mean. They have no significance outside of that which we ascribe to them. So if we are offended by the fact that they mean something else to someone else, we are being selfish and immature.