Last week there was a specific day when I came across quite a few people riled up about folks not keeping the “Christ” in “Christmas.” Mostly it was online, but I also ran across it in overheard conversations offline as well. Which, you know, got me a bit riled up as well. I started counting around mid-afternoon, and from that point on I heard three people complaining about stores wishing Happy Holidays rather than Merry Christmas, and two more complaining about the Xmas abbrviation; I think there were sevenn or eight conversations I overheard that day, all told. Something about that focus always seems distinctly un-Christlike to me, and also not particularly fitting given that Christmas is about love and peace and togetherness, so it feels like failing at Christmas spirit as well.
(Sidenote: This abbreviation actually has a long, fascinating history in Christianity. It’s not a modern invention to write out the name of Christ from the holiday.)
The line doesn’t have to be offensive. Directed at my fellow Christians, it can be a good reminder to focus on the things that matter about the holidays and not get carried away with the glitz. It can mean to make time to read something meaningful to mark Advent, or make it to church for the weekly wreath-lighting, or (even better, and this is not either/or kind of or but one that opens us up to a both/and): a time to remember that Christ the King spent his first nights shivering in a stable and that many of my fellow humans who bear the thumbprint of God just as much as I do still are shivering and hungry. It should be a call to recognize our shared humanity, to reach out to those who are suffering (and to keep reaching through January and beyond, but baby steps…). Also perhaps to remember that Christmas, the Incarnation, is the beginning of how God broke through the tribal walls of the ancient world. The baby born in Bethlehem was not meant to be simply the God of the Jews, but the God of anyone who’d follow Him.
Which is what makes the way this phrase is usually used so frustrating. The gripes I noticed last week of “Happy Holidays” vs. “Merry Christmas” and the “Xmas” abbreviation do seem to be the most common. Typically these seem to be cultural signifiers that the person saying them honors a specifically Christian holiday. It’s an affirmation that Christianity isn’t just the biggest of the various holidays people celebrate. It seems, at least in my experience, to be about getting people to say “yes, we are all like you; yes, your traditions and way of doing things are the most important, indeed, the only ones worth mentioning at least right now.”
I will gladly wish my Christian friends a Merry Christmas. I’ll gladly share it with people who are happy that I’m celebrating a holiday meaningful to me, even if the religious holiday isn’t actually important to them. And I’ll even share it with people who aren’t religious, who just enjoy all of the non-religious aspects of the season, the family and friends and food and quiet nights together and music and decorations and kitschy old movies and, yes, even the picking out of gifts for the people in your life. That’s Christmas, too, though for me as a religious Christian it’s never going to be all there is to Christmas. And on the flip side I’ll say a happy Chanukkah to my Jewish friends (which I just realized I haven’t actually said online; a happy Chanukkah to all who celebrate it!), much as I wished a good Diwali last month and an Eid al-Fitr back in September to people I know who celebrate those special days. When my friends celebrate something that’s meaningful to them, I like to share it with them.
To my mind, you can’t both insist everyone wish people a Merry Christmas and at the same time expect the word to hold onto a specifically religious connotation. It just doesn’t work that way because most people saying it won’t be particularly religious. Even if they claim the Christian religion, even in America where we have so many churches and so many people ticking off the Christian box on surveys, the vast majority of people won’t invest a lot of time and effort into their religion. It’s something that gets them into a church for an hour on Sunday morning, and that’s if you’re lucky; most likely, it’s how they think of themselves culturally but may not actually affect their life that much except at special holidays when they get together with their extended families. And for other people, it doesn’t impact their lives at all. Even if I could get all those people to say the words “Merry Christmas,” they probably wouldn’t mean the same things I do when I say them.
And that’s really okay. It doesn’t keep me from keeping the Christ in Christmas, although focusing on whether other people do rather than doing it myself probably does. It’s kind of like Thanksgiving prayers when I was a kid: I could either listen to the prayer and actually pray it, or I could crack my eye open because I suspected my cousins weren’t really praying and I wanted to check if they were making silly faces at each other. But I couldn’t do both.
I’ve been thinking about this issue a little, and yesterday I happened to be listening to my Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack (yes, this is a normal occurrence in Casa Marta), and the “L’Chaim!” song struck me as offering a good third way:
In this song, Tevye, Lazar Wolf, and pretty much everyone who happens to be in the local pub are drinking and dancing loudly to celebrate a wedding Lazar Wolf’s just arranged with Tevye’s daughter. This attracts the attention of some of their non-Jewish neighbors. If you know anything about turn-of-the-century (or previous century) Russian history, you may know Jews and non-Jews have a *cough* difficult relationship. At best – when a group of Cossacks darken the door of a Jewish celebration, it often doesn’t end well. This time, though, they start playing music and dancing along with their Jewish neighbors. They’re doing a thoroughly non-Jewish dance, but it’s a clear attempt to join in on the celebrations:
Heaven bless you both nazdrovia
To your health and may we live together in peace
The thing is, they’re joining this celebration as non-Jews. TO try to dance a more Jewish dance would probably seem inauthentic to all involved; Tevye is the only Jew to really take up their dance, and that’s when he’s specifically invited in. He seems to be the only one. But the fact that they are celebrating this as non-Jews doesn’t keep them from honoring what’s being celebrated. It doesn’t require them to say “this is how I would do it,” or to become Jews, either. But the message gets across: “I recognize this is important to you, and I want to celebrate it with you.”
In my experience, most non-Christians and nominal Christians respect that the religious side of the holiday is important to their more devout neighbors. They get that there’s more than Santa Claus and Macy’s at work here, even if it’s not at work for them. Even if Santa Claus and Macy’s isn’t even part of their yearly celebrations. That’s fine. It’s even good, and you get lovely blends of different styles that enrich the celebration for everyone when this happens. Imagine if the Russians had just tried to do the same dance as the Jews and hadn’t brought their own style to bear. it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as marvelous of a scene. It also strikes me as a much more thoroughly Christian approach to the holidays, to welcome our neighbors in and share warmth and love without requiring they do it just the way we do. Because if there’s one area where Jesus pushed our boundaries. “Which of these do you think was a neighbor?” indeed.
So to close: Ná merye i turuhalmeri! (That’s Quenya, and if you can understand it we have quite enough in common to be getting on with, whether we celebrate the same holiday in the same way or not. And even if you can’t, I still like you anyway.)