About five years ago, I was standing at a bus stop downtown, when I was approached by an old gent who was selling buttons bearing the legend, “I celebrate Christmas.” I bought one, and it got me thinking about the acceptability of offering the traditional greeting, “Merry Christmas!” (Just checked my button collection: don’t have it any more, although I still have my Jimmy Carter and my Bob Rae buttons, and the brilliant button which says “No, eh?”–from the NAFTA campaign.)
Not long afterwards, I noticed that the phrase had disappeared from the CBC, replaced by the anodyne, flavourless, abstract, homogenized phrase, “Happy holidays!” (I debated for a moment there about whether or not that phrase deserved an exclamation mark.) I also became aware that in many schools, Christmas concerts had disappeared in favour of “Winter Celebrations” (ouch: no exclamation mark there!).
And why was this happening? Various reasons. One, for which I have some sympathy, comes from the intelligentsia, who are rightly critical of the hegemonic (couldn’t resist that word: dominating, in a negative sense) role played by Christianity in the West for many years. Men, white people and Christians are the bad guys in this scenario (I note that I am all three), and we need to accept our share of responsibility for this. The decline in our time of institutional Christianity,* ironically, is a help in this regard. As Christianity becomes less powerful, it generates less opposition.
Another is the desire for inclusiveness promoted by those concerned for diversity and respect for minority groups. I have more sympathy for this viewpoint; but often it goes too far, and gives voice to every tradition except Christianity. It bends over backwards in the work of reparation, which sometimes leads to an unbalanced tail-wags-dog effect.
A third reason, for which I have no sympathy whatever, comes from the secular humanists, who believe that religion is a matter for the private sphere only; and since Christmas has religious origins, there is no place for it in the public sphere. In my observation, these folks espouse a kind of humourless rationalism which I find enormously unattractive.
Well, “so much, my brethren, by way of preface” (many of you have heard my story about the Irish preacher who said this at the 58-minute-mark in his sermon). What then is the case for “Merry Christmas”?
I believe that MC is inclusive in a different sense than the diversity folk’s sense of inclusiveness. As I have listened to, yes, Christmas music on the radio, I have realized that MC can include the non-religious dimensions of the feast as well as the religious ones. It can include “Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” or “Santa Baby” [ ] as well as “Silent Night” or “Away in a Manger.” The secular position can include the first, but not the second. (And speaking of the radio, I’m glad to say that reasonableness has returned to the CBC. I listened on Saturday to a jazz program (Margaret Gallagher interviewing big band leader and endurance sensation Dal Richards, 95 on January 4); at the end of the interview they wished each other “Merry Christmas!”, and Dal showed up at church yesterday to do one of the readings.
It also can exercise a unifying effect on simple interchanges for the season. One of the great things about France is that you always know how to address a stranger: M’sieu or Madame, even simpler since the abolition of Mademoiselle. Since I got my groove back on this subject, I have greeted everyone with “Merry Christmas,” and had no objections to the phrase. I have also particularly noticed that members of immigrant/minority groups are entirely ready to reply in the same words.
Christmas is a celebration in terms of the name with Christian origins, but in terms of a light-in-the-darkness festival, it goes back into pre-Christian times. When Christianity became legal in the fourth century, and could celebrate its special days openly, the church chose the date of December 25 because it was already the Roman feast of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, a major holiday from work. The Romans, one intuits, would have been unhappy to lose their winter time off, and the church knew this and acted accordingly. (Jesus, according to scripture scholars, was probably born in September, when the sheep were still out in the fields.)
In our secular time, Christmas, the seasonal celebration, has expanded to include both the religious and the non-religious among us, as Christmas music attests. It’s now celebrated by people of virtually every tradition and ethnicity in Canada, as well as by Christians (I had to say “virtually” there, because I just remembered that Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to observe Christmas. Oh well, as a sign in a church in Vancouver’s downtown east side says, “Hallelujah anyway!”). The Christians of my acquaintance, in fact, are putting new energy into the observance of Advent, the four-week season of preparation for Christmas, as well as sharing in the secular celebrations. It’s both/and, not either/or.
So how to handle it if you wish someone MC and they grump at you? Just ask them what greeting they would prefer, then offer them that greeting, then tell them that your preferred greeting (if it is!) is “Merry Christmas!” and invite them to offer it to you.
” … I know it’s been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you.”
* I’m just reading an excellent book on the recent history of North American Christianity, which provides context for this institutional decline and the little phenomenon I’ve been describing. It’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by Ross Douthat, op-ed columnist for the NY Times (New York: Free Press, 2012).