'Tis the season for all right-thinking Americans to get a bee in their collective bonnet regarding "Happy Holidays" being substituted for "Merry Christmas." It's an insufferable umbrage, we are told, to hear the generic holiday greeting, since the overwhelming majority of people in our culture do celebrate Christmas. This deeply important issue precipitated a boycott of Wal-Mart last year, in response to which Wal-Mart has gone back to "Merry Christmas." We are encouraged to think that a moral victory has been won.
Given the antipathy I recently expressed regarding "Happy Turkey Day," you might think that I have similar feelings toward "Happy Holidays." The latter expression is, of course, a silly concession to political correctness, and another example of how Christians are expected to accept marginalization in favor of supposedly neutral secularism. Nonetheless, I really don't mind "Happy Holidays." The reason why is related to what has happened to Christmas in our culture.
It is commonplace to complain that Christmas has been too commercialized; the real issue came earlier: Christmas being secularized. For a long time now, two separate holidays have coexisted by the same name and on the same day, often being celebrated by the same people at the same time. One commemorates the birth of the incarnate Son of God, and the incidental aspects of that birth become the symbols of the holiday: angels, shepherds, wise men, a man and his young pregnant bride, the animals in a stable, and one special star. There is music associated with this holiday: "O Come, O Come, Immanuel," "Silent Night," "Joy to the World," Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus".
The other holiday is a celebration of sentimentality and childhood fantasy. Its central event is the annual magical appearance of presents, and the incidental aspects of that event are the symbols of that holiday: snow, reindeer, evergreen trees, stockings, and the Right Jolly Old Elf himself, Santa Claus. There is music associated with this holiday as well: "White Christmas," "Winter Wonderland," "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and "Jingle Bell Rock."
These two holidays have coexisted for a long time, but have had great difficulty in being integrated. There is always the attempt by Christians to relate gift-giving to the gifts of the Magi; and it used to be fashionable for adults in the secular world to talk about the "real meaning" of the holiday as being The Birth of a Child (without, of course, any discussion of Who that Child was). But that was before it became fashionable for adults to proclaim, Peter Pannish-like, True Belief in Santa Claus, thus getting rid of any necessity of mentioning a Child at all. The secularization of Christmas has a long history. It was considered scandalous to the Puritans, who opposed its celebration at all.
I think that celebrating the entrance of the Son of God into the world is a good thing, and if it contains some of the trappings of Secular Christmas, I frankly don't mind, as long as the two Christmasses are kept in perspective. But over the last several years, I have noticed a virtual monopoly of Secular Christmas music, to the exclusion of Christian Christmas music, on the radio and in public places. It's easy to find snowmen and reindeer to put on your lawn; much more difficult to find nativity scenes. Rather than coexisting with Christian Christmas, Secular Christmas has been supplanting Christian Christmas for some time now. That, in turn, makes me a little uneasy when someone wishes me a "Merry Christmas." I'm beginning to wonder, "Which Christmas do you mean?"
The reality is, you have to know Christ to appreciate the Real Meaning of Christian Christmas. Sentimental hogwash about the Birth of New Hope is just meaningless words if you don't believe in the hope that Jesus came to give. And the majority of people you meet don't believe, and so they don't know, and can't appreciate what Christmas means to those who do know Christ. I'm frankly not sure I want everyone and their dog wishing me a "Merry Christmas." I'm not sure I want to wish everyone else a Merry Christmas, if some of them are going to understand by that phrase getting drunk on eggnog and maxing out their credit cards. It's a communication thing. "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
On the other hand, I don't mind wishing people "Happy Holidays." I truly want Jewish people to enjoy their week of Hanukkah; I don't even mind secular people enjoying Secular Christmas. If they celebrate the day differently than I would, it doesn't matter. It's not my holiday they're trashing. And I don't mind them wishing me a happy holiday. I will gladly celebrate Christian Christmas, and be glad that they wished me a happy one. They spoke better than they knew, God bless 'em.
So don't get bent out of shape when you hear, "Happy Holidays." Better a genuine "Happy Holidays" than a fake "Merry Christmas." And when you do hear "Merry Christmas," maybe it will actually mean something. Better yet, it may mean the right thing.