In a perhaps vain effort to stave off my Sherlock addiction yesterday night I played a House DVD while I did some baking. Specifically I watched the season one Christmas episode, “Damned if You Do.” Nice solid episode doing a good job with the ambiguities of faith without reducing everything to a religion vs. science false dilemma.
Anyway, there’s this nice scene toward the end where Dr. Wilson invites Dr. House over for Christmas dinner. Wilson is a Jew, a thoroughly secular Jew as far as we’ve seen so far (though later there are hints of some kind of spirituality from him), and House is famously atheistic. So House questions this Christmas thing, to which Wilson replies: “What do you care? It’s food, it’s people.” And the conversation ends with Lisa Cuddy, another more-or-less secular Jewish doctor wishing them both a Merry Christmas.
I think this experience of Christmas resonates with a lot of people, particularly people I know here in New York. I’ve gone to Christmas concerts (usually a mass with a more polished than normal musical program) with a Hindi neighbor in tow, and though she wasn’t familiar with the mass she loved the music and the coffee afterwards. New York is actually a fairly religious city, but even among your regular church-goers (meaning weekly attendance and other devotional practices – we’re not talking just Easter and Christmas Christians), Christmas is mostly about family and friends and food, with religious observance almost tacked on. I’m not talking about their personal spirituality, the things they read and think about during the season; but when it comes to the things they do, the majority could be done just as easily by people who weren’t Christian.
And to my mind, there’s not a thing wrong with this. Those things they are celebrating, love and joy and peace and friendship, are pretty universal human values and are worth celebrating whether you’re religious or not. If making a word a little more elastic than I would naturally do helps people make time for those kinds of things, I’m cool with that. As a Christian I do think there’s a liturgical, almost sacramental, value in the religious Christmas – but I’m not naive enough to think that’s what everyone or even most people mean when they talk about Christmas. And while I sometimes wish we as a society reserved the word Christmas for the uniquely Christian religious holiday and used a different expression (“Happy Holidays,” “Season’s Greetings,” etc.) for all the festivities going on in December, religious and otherwise… well, if we did that I wouldn’t expect everyone to use that expression, Merry Christmas, as the default. If Christmas is really the name for something unique to Christians (and even within that, the particularly devout members of that religion) and it’s not what’s being celebrated by society in general, then that changes the way we use language.
I’m thinking about the famous War on Christmas here. I saw Bill O’Reilly’s name today on a completely different topic and that, combined with holiday displays in the stores, got me thinking about this question. And I get that there are some people who want everyone, stores and so on, to say Merry Christmas this time of year rather than Happy Holidays. But I’m not sure those greetings ever worked the way they want. It strikes me that when the stores say “Merry Christmas,” for the most part they mean it as the kind of inoffensive greeting any two Americans could share – more Bob Cratchett and Macy’s Santa Claus than creches and angels and shepherds. The kind of thing a nominally Jewish doctor could share with another slightly-less-nominal-but-still-not-exac
Also: I really kind of like that House scene. It’s so sweet, it makes me smile a little.
Speaking of Sherlock (because it always comes back to that), earlier today I shared this video at Pinterest, with the comment that it was entirely too accurate a description of the fans waiting on series three. Which it kind of is. Several hours later a friend introduced me to a few Tumblr sites and I found them making memes about that video and series three, which as far as I could tell popped up today. I flatter myself that I made my first ripples in this fandom. Which made me smile.