Seventeenth Day of Christmas: Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays?

“Happy Holidays … is what terrorists say. Merry Christmas.” So reads the Christmas card from 30rock-300x0fictional 30 Rock couple Avery Jessup and Jack Donaghy, die-hard conservatives and capitalists. And they’re not alone in their bizarre obsession with the exact phrasing of a seasonal greeting intended to convey cheer and kindness.

Personally, I tend to favor a hearty “Merry Christmas.” It’s what I heard growing up and subsequently I have a sentimental attachment to the phrase. But I’ve no objection to an equally enthusiastic “Happy Holidays.” It is, after all, more inclusive and you can’t deny the appeal of a good alliterative salutation.

There seems to be a camp that holds that the phrase “Happy Holidays” is some sort of attack on their belief system. And I’ve actually heard people aggressively respond to “Happy Holidays” with a “Merry Christmas” that was delivered as if the speaker wished it were a bayonet, rather than greeting. Call me naive, but I don’t believe weaponizing the phrase “Merry Christmas” is very in keeping with the spirit of the season.

If we really wanted to get into “the reason for the season”—which I don’t, primarily because I believe that life is hard and every moment of celebration and joy is precious and sacred, and that we all celebrate for reasons entirely our own—there is a long history of winter festivals and solstice celebrations long before Christianity entered the scene. The days were brief and cold, the nights long and colder still, and people had more time on their hands with harvests done and spring planting to look forward to. Roman Saturnalia—an annual festival celebrating the deity Saturn on Dec. 17—featured gift giving, a public banquet, and a number of candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth. What better excuse for generosity and revelry than knowledge and truth?

In late December and early January, pagans in Scandinavia celebrated Yule. There were toasts and animal sacrifices and drinking—the most essential segments of a contemporary Christmas celebration, whether religious or merely cultural. (And lest you decry the barbarism of pagan animal sacrifice, the pagans ate the animals they killed, and you can bet there’s a long line of animals marching to slaughter as we speak in advance of the contemporary carnivorous Christmas feast and death by factory is a helluva lot less humane.)

As people turned more and more to Christianity, these pagan festivals and symbols were adopted into the Christian narrative. What have a pine tree and lights to do with the birth of Jesus? Nothing, but if they bring you joy, I wish you well of them. And I would hope that you would wish me well of my tree and lights, though I ascribe no religious attachment or symbolism to them.

This is my holiday narrative, my reason for the season, if you will: For the better part of the year, most people are self-interested and indifferent to the hardships of those around them. This is an opportunity for us to set that aside, to wish people a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” and commit some act of kindness on their behalf. This is a time when the house smells of pine and good things baking in the oven and the record player is turning endlessly with the London Symphony’s live performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. This is the time when I set aside my endless scribbling and wrap presents for the people I care about. And it’s so incredibly dear to me. That’s my reason for the season and I don’t require a sanctimonious so-called Christian who wields the season like a weapon against non-believers to remind me of it.

So Merry Christmas, or Happy Holidays. You may take your pick, and rest assured you’ll receive no judgment from me on either score. Unless, of course, you’ve mistaken a season of kindness and giving for a battlefield on which to take a religious or political stand, in which case, you’ve got it all wrong; the example you set is mean-spirited and self-righteous, and no one will be eager to join your Jesus Fan Club.

As Tiny Tim famously said, “A merry Christmas to everybody,” and yes, I mean everybody—the Christians, the heathens, the agnostics, the pagans, the Jews, the Muslims, the Buddhists, the atheists, the pastafarians, “A happy New Year to all the world,” and yes, I mean to my fellow Americans and to our Canadian neighbors to the north, our Mexican neighbors to the south, and to the Muslim countries our government stupidly refuses to stop bombing and to the countries we thankfully are not currently bombing. And though I don’t hold with Tiny Tim’s belief in God—and author Dickens, with whom I share a birthday, actually harbored animosity toward organized religion—I don’t begrudge those among you who wish to conclude, “God bless Us, Every One!” (Just don’t strap it to a drone and send it careening at the rest of us.)

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