This time of year is full of time-honored traditions, like trimming the tree, hanging the stockings, and complaining about people saying, “Happy Holidays!” I’m going to tell you what I think about this issue, but I’m not going to say what you think I’m going to say, and you may not like it one bit.
The basic controversy is that our culture at large is moving away from religious-specific statements like “Merry Christmas!” to more generic, all-inclusive statements like, “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings.” I think it was Tommy on the Rugrats who came up with “Merry Christmakwanzaakkuh.” Which of course really ticked off those folks who celebrate the Winter Solstice.
Some say the reason for this shift to a blander seasonal salutation is political correctness. A Christian humor site I subscribe to sent out this version of a season greeting: “Best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most joyous traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, but with respect for the religious persuasion of others who choose to practice their own religion as well as those who choose not to practice a religion at all.”
In an effort not to offend anyone, we take all the salt out of our language. People bemoan the lack of “Merry Christmas!” signs at Walgreens, and resolutely offer the Christian greeting to grocery clerks in a tone more fit for a battle cry, as if they’re saying, “Merry Christmas – wanna make something of it?”
So what do I, a Christian pastor, think of this? What’s my take on the Scrooges who want to trade in Christmas for a generic winter holiday? I say, “Good. They can have it. Let them cheerily wish me a ‘Happy Holiday’ until icicles dangle from their nose.” I have no problems with “Merry Christmas” disappearing from our larger culture. In fact, I applaud and encourage it. Why? Because it’s the best chance we have of reclaiming Christmas for what it truly is.
Look, we Christians lost our grip on Christmas a LONG time ago, and no matter how many “Christ is the reason for the season” bumper stickers we produce, we’re never going to forcibly wrest it back for the culture’s grip. It’s too far gone. Christmas is no more a religious holiday than Britney Spears is a candidate for sainthood.
That’s why people are in such an uproar about the diminishing of “Merry Christmas.” Why should it offend; it’s just an innocent holiday hello! That term no longer signifies a religious observance; if anything, it marks the beginning of a retail season, like the green flag being waved at the Indy 500. People don’t see “Merry Christmas” as having any potential to offend because it doesn’t really mean anything, at least from a spiritual standpoint.
The truth is that, like it or not, Christmas is supposed to be an exclusively Christian holiday. If someone went around wishing me a “Happy Hanukkah” all the time, while I wouldn’t punch that person in the face, I would be a little perturbed and contemplate knocking their yarmulke off. If we want to honor the true meaning of Christmas, then we must honor the fact that at best it has no meaning for non-Christians, at least in the religious sense, and at worst it can be offensive and off-putting, which won’t win you many converts.
But here’s the real reason why I’m happy to give up saying “Merry Christmas” in non-Christian settings. Wouldn’t it be great if we could reclaim Christmas as a primarily Christian celebration? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could say “Merry Christmas” only when we actually meant it in the most joyous, hopeful sense? I say “Happy Holidays” to the convenience store clerk because I truly hope he has a happy holiday, regardless of whether he is Christian, a Winter Solstician, or celebrates Festivus (“For the rest of us!”). But at church, I say “Merry Christmas,” because I want my fellow Christians to truly experience the miracle that Christmas brings for their life and their faith.
What I hope is that the idea of Christmas can be insulated from the culture’s grip. Give them “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings.” They can have it. No one is complaining that “Happy Hanukkah” has lost its meaning, because you hardly ever heard it said in the marketplace. If only “Merry Christmas” could gain that same kind of scarcity. If Christmas begins to disappear from the larger culture, maybe the church can repossess it, wipe off all the yucky cultural residue, give it a good spit-shine, and place it back up on the mantle. If we can do that, maybe, just maybe, Christmas could actually be about Christ again. Is that too much to ask Santa for?
Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas!