American Culture

May I wish you a, um, Merry Christmas?

Merry Christmas to the readers of Scholars & Rogues! This is a personal greeting – and I thus hereby issue a disclaimer that it does not speak on behalf of nor represent the intentions or persuasions of all of my blogger colleagues here at our joint endeavor.

But I’d like to offer this wish of seasonal cheer, no strings attached. No agenda, no proselytizing, no offense. Just the outpouring of a full and warm heart on the 25th of December.

It is Christmas Day, and my heart’s naïve hope is that it could stand for what it is ought to be in the broadest cultural sense – an occasion to wish peace on earth and good will to all. Whether or not one believes in the incarnation of Jesus Christ as God come into human history, the nativity myth is filled with simple beauty, and the ancient yuletide traditions it has become associated with have for centuries celebrated the triumph of light over darkness in a bleak world. To say “Merry Christmas” is, for me, to affirm that light and share its spirit with others, whether or not we embrace the same religious practices or none at all.

I explained this to my 10-year-old daughter earlier this week, when I wished a Merry Christmas to the stylist who trimmed her hair before her picture with Santa.

“Mom!” responded my socially sensitive, Boulder-raised daughter, as we walked out to the parking lot, “What if she doesn’t celebrate Christmas?”

“Well, I suspect she will recognize that I was sharing a warm wish with her, and will take it as just that,” I replied. I was willing to chance it.

When I was in Nepal during Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, I was caught up in the revelry of the holiday, recognizing in the proclamation of light in darkness, knowledge over ignorance, and love over hatred, ideals for all humanity. I did not have to be Hindu to find an empathetic appreciation for this celebration — and far from being offended, I found it an occasion to find joy across cultural divides. Ditto for the invitation my daughter received to a classmate’s Hanukkah party. She’s begged me to try my hand at making the tasty latkes she was introduced to, and I’m going to try my progressive Protestant best to emulate them.

But as the holiday season comes round again each year in the U.S., I feel a heavier emotional burden in negotiating the unfortunate minefield that our well-wishing has become. No matter what one says, our greetings are too often seen as political statements, rather than sincerely intended.

“Merry Christmas,” in some minds, has become a militant rhetorical weapon wielded by Christian conservatives. See, for instance, Pamela White’s column in the Boulder Weekly, which condemns Focus on the Family for instigating a boycott of businesses that opt to wish “Happy Holidays” to their customers, rather than a Merry Christmas.

“Happy holidays,” likewise, which was once an alliterative phrase with an encompassing festive appeal – like “Season’s Greetings” – has now become a hallmark of political correctness and hostility to Christianity, for many. The similarly all-purpose “Have a good holiday” that the grocery checker sends me on my way with has ironically become as uncomfortable as “Merry Christmas,” (including perhaps for the atheist who rejects all “holy days”).

No matter what we choose to say – or not say — we have attached so much tense political baggage to our expressions that the season can feel harsh and scary, rather than standing as a moment in our annual calendar when we can come together in all our diversity, respect our various traditions, and celebrate peace and love amidst the ongoing horror of global wars, fears over collapsing economies, and the tedium of quotidian demands.

Even our musical heritage is reflecting this anxiety. I’ve noticed we no longer hear traditional Christmas carols on retail music systems in December – no Joy to the World or Hark the Herald Angels Sing, no Silent Night. Just an insipid barrage of Jingle Bell Rock and cheesy pop versions of Sleigh Ride. Are these old pieces of sacred music so potentially incendiary that we must remove them from our shared cultural lexicon, insisting that they stay exclusively in the private sphere so that in a generation or so, few may still be familiar with them outside a church? If we follow that logic, we may as well shun Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s Christmas Oratorio from our classical radio stations (the handful that remain). I’m sorry, but I find this overly zealous self-censorship foolish.

Europeans, who are not remotely as religious as Americans but becoming just as socially diverse, aren’t nearly as hung up as we are about seasonal salutations and religious references. To my eye, they have a sense of perspective and reasonableness that we tend to lack.

Americans, we need to lighten up. Rather than impoverish our collective spirits and cultural heritage by eliminating specific expressions of the holiday season from our shared spaces, including the dominant realm of commerce – or saying nothing if we are afraid we won’t “get it right” — can’t we just enjoy our cultural collage, including our religious traditions, with a little more mercy and lightheartedness?

Delight in the glow of the Menorah, enjoy the fresh scent of a twinkling fir, burn a yule log and revel in the return of Ol’ Sol, rejoice that a humble babe born in a cattle stall was sent into the world to challenge might and materialism…

In this spirit, I wish you a very Merry Christmas indeed, and I welcome your reciprocal overtures to me, whichever kind-spirited tradition they are grounded within.

9 replies »

  1. Wendy,

    While I agree with you that there are many who are oversensitive to Christmas greetings, I submit that this oversensitivity would not exist if there weren’t so many “Christians” who continue to insist that those of us who aren’t Christian are unwelcome in “their” country.

    I think the answer to this is very simple, really. Once enough American Christians reject those who insist that there is something wrong with those of us who do not share their faith, all of this will right itself.

    The Europeans don’t mind expressions of Christmas cheer because Christians in most countries there are not to be feared. Here in the US, we would be foolish not to fear them.

  2. I do recognize the grounds for this legitimate concern, JS, even if I didn’t acknowledge it directly in what I wrote. In Europe, no one tends to worry that “Merry Christmas” is intended as a religious mission statement, nor would they necessarily even assume that the greeting sender is a practicing Christian. Definitely different climates, and there, not so rent by the culture wars that continue to besiege us. I would just like to see Americans of all stripes and practices relax a little bit. (In my dreams!)

  3. Nicely done, Wendy.

    As one who wasn’t even baptized and is more than willing to skewer Christianity at the drop of a hat, i still say “Merry Christmas”. And actually, “Happy Holidays” kind of pisses me off…i don’t know why, it just does.

    But i will say that the religious right’s attempt to make us all bow to the “reason for the season” is simply laughable. Where’s Christ in all of this? I see a lot of Santa Claus, drug induced shamanic symbol turned into the figurehead of orgiastic consumerism that he is…but not a whole lot of peace on earth and good will towards men.

    Then again, i don’t see a lot of Christ in Christianity (and hence my willingness to skewer). Christmas – by whatever name one chooses to call it – is a celebration of moving from the dark to the light, which was essentially Christ’s message. So i figure that it’s ok to ignore that fact that Jesus was almost certainly not born in December. It’s probably ok to trim the pagan tree rather than decorating a fish. And “Merry Christmas” sounds a lot less forced than a politically correct “Happy Holidays”.

    So…Merry Christmas, Scrogues. Now if you’ll excuse me, i’ve been collecting reindeer urine all day and i’m all set to celebrate Christmas the old, old fashioned way.

  4. Wendy: great post.

    I sent the following message to all my friends and thought I’d send it to y’all.

    Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the
    most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular traditions at all, and a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset accepted calendar year 2009, but without due respect for the calendars of choice of others, and without regard to the race, creed, color, age, physical ability, religious faith, or sexual orientation of the wishee.

    By accepting this greeting, you are accepting these terms:

    This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal. It is freely transferable with no alteration to the original greeting. It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement any of the wishes for him/herself or others and is void where
    prohibited by law and is revocable at the sole discretion of the wisher. This wish is warranted to perform as expected within the usual application of good tidings for a period of one year, or until the issuance of a subsequent holiday greeting, whichever comes first and warranty is limited to replacement of this wish or the issuance of a new wish at the sole discretion of the wisher.


  5. I second Lex’s comment. As an ardent anti-Christian (no, not an atheist), I nevertheless find feeling compelled to avoid wishing “Merry Christmas” deflating.

  6. Any religious festival in which I have no investment of faith but which nevertheless results in my receiving lots of presents can call itself whatever it wants. If Hanukkah had better swag, I’d be lighting candles right now.