Season’s Greetings, and Happy Holidays to each and every one (i.e., both) of you!
It being the Christmas season and all…
[…and let me just interject at this point that i have very little patience with people who take delight in correcting you when you call December “the Christmas season,” after which they explain, with seemingly infinite patience, that the weeks leading up to Christmas are actually the “Advent” season, and the “Christmas” season does not technically begin until Christmas Day…]
[…from which point it extends through January 5th (the “twelve days of Christmas” that you’ve heard about in songs and never really understood), after which the Christmas season is officially concluded with the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th), the holiday on which is celebrated the arrival of the Wise Men from the East…]
[…i have very little patience with these people, i say, because, when they correct you for calling the weeks leading up to Christmas Day “the Christmas season,” and they tell you no, it’s not the Christmas season, it’s Advent, what they’re actually doing is substituting one completely arbitrary formulation for another, both invented by men and neither one found anywhere in the New Testament…]
[…and honestly, it does not matter what nomenclature you use in signaling your enthusiasm for the festival on which we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ into the world…]
…so, it being the Christmas season and all, it seems fitting that we should take a little time to investigate the issue of what sorts of things we should be saying to people, to wish them joy during this season of the year.
Every year for at least the past decade or so, the issue has come up. It’s actually a ridiculous controversy, but since both religious and nonreligious people (as well as religious people who are not Christians) often tend to make a big deal of it, it’s worth our time to enter the field, clarify the issues a bit, and hopefully arrive at some salutary conclusions.
In case you’ve spent the past couple of decades encased in the same stuff that Han Solo–in The Empire Strikes Back–found himself frozen in, here’s a summary of the debate:
When i encounter someone downtown, and it’s, oh, let’s say December 19th, and i would like to confer a seasonally-appropriate joyous blessing on the other person, should i wish this person a “Merry Christmas”?
1. Yes, because it is, in fact, the Christmas (or Advent, which amounts to the same thing) season, whether the other person acknowledges it to be so or not.
2. No, because you’re risking offending somebody by stepping on their irreligious toes, and offending people is the cardinal sin of the 21st century.
Those people who are inclined to be contentious on this particular issue tend to line up behind either Answer #1 or Answer #2. Lots of people (whether religious or ir-) have no particular opinion, and really don’t care whether you wish them a Happy Christmas, or you tell them that fairies are arriving on the backs of unicorns to sprinkle them with magical dust. They’re just happy to be greeted pleasantly during a holiday-themed season of the year. These people are not the targets of my blog post. I’m talking to the people who are ardently committed to Answer #1 or Answer #2.
To be completely accurate, i need to point out that there are actually two different levels to the debate. One level involves the question of whether everyone SHOULD be using the vocabulary of Christmas when talking about the December holidays. The second level involves whether it is even OKAY (socially acceptable, commercially viable, or legally permissible) to employ the vocabulary of Christmas during the December holidays.
Understand: It is possible to address one of these two levels without even touching the other; they are, in fact, distinct controversies. Regrettably, these two levels of argumentation are routinely jumbled together, and the resultant arguments tend to become incoherent. I am here chiefly concerned with the first level of the debate: whether Christmas is the default holiday toward which the month of December naturally gravitates, and to which we ought all to be making reference when we wish each other joy.
Further complicating the issue(s), however, is this: the people who embrace Answer #1 tend (usually) to be engaging the first level of the debate, while the people who embrace Answer #2 tend (often) to be engaging the second level of the debate.
In other words, it’s the “no” camp that tend to be interested in the legality of public Christmas celebration. They (some of them, typically the strident atheists) are willing to make use of the power of the state, where available, to enforce the non-celebration of Christmas. By contrast, i am unaware of a corresponding “yes” position, in which the power of the state would be employed to FORCE everyone to celebrate Christmas. I’ve never met anyone who believes that. It’s a struggle between those who desire the freedom to celebrate Christ’s birth, and those who think this freedom should not be allowed.
Let me just briefly touch on the second level of the debate, because it is easily disposed of. It’s a non-issue.
Yes, of course it should be considered both socially acceptable and legally permissible to (publicly) talk about Christmas, celebrate Christmas, sing Christmas songs, put up Christmas decorations, set up public Nativity scenes, decorate the store windows with obviously “Christmas”-themed materials, etc. To deny this is to deny the most basic canons of civil freedom, as defined in the U.S. Constitution and built into the American consciousness.
Now, as to the question of whether privately-owned businesses have the right to restrict their own or their employees’ speech and patterns of celebration during the Christmas season–for instance, should their employees say “Merry Christmas!” when answering the phone–i guess the answer to this is “yes” as well. I mean, “Yes, a private company may dictate standards related to employee behavior.” But let’s be clear. In saying that privately owned businesses are permitted to make decisions based on the owner’s perception of what’s appropriate or what will best serve the bottom line, we need to be consistent, and agree that if he can exercise such judgment in the area of celebrating Christmas (or not) as a part of his company culture, he is equally free to exercise such judgment in every other area, including hiring practices, selection of insurance plans, etc. But let’s not even go there. This blog entry is about the holidays, not civil liberties.
Back to the issue at hand.
Should everyone make use of a “Christmas”-oriented vocabulary when celebrating the December holidays? Well, the very manner in which the issue is framed in people’s minds leads to an unnecessary confusion. Here’s the problem:
There are LOTS of holidays in the month of December. Christmas is one of them.
I would argue, and that vehemently, that Christmas Day is far and away the most significant of all the holidays celebrated during the closing weeks of the year and the opening weeks of the new year. But the question is not, “What’s the most important holiday encountered in the winter season?” The question is, “What ought i to wish my friends and neighbors during the winter season?” And the answer to that second question… the question that needs to be answered in order for this silly discussion to be resolved… does not exist. It cannot be answered.
You see, if there were an answer to that question, it would depend on which holiday i happened to be thinking of at the time. It would depend on what holiday the other person happened to be thinking of at the time. It would depend on the setting (physical, religious, socio-cultural) in which we both found ourselves.
You have to understand that there are literally dozens of holidays in the month of December. In addition to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (nearly universally acknowledged by Christians), there is also the Feast Day of St. Nicholas (December 6), known to the Dutch as “Sinterklaas Dag.” Maybe you don’t care about celebrating a Saints’ Day–i can’t say i’m particular to them, in general, myself–but the convoluted process by which St. Nicholas of Myra, a 4th century bishop, came to be associated with “Santa Claus” at Christmas has a lot to do with that particular day and the celebrations associated with it–not just in the Netherlands, but in many European countries.
And hey, while we’re on the topic of saints’ days, it begs to be observed that every single day of the year is paved several layers thick with observances dedicated to various persons acknowledged as “saints” by the Roman Catholic church. EVERY SINGLE DAY. Of the YEAR. Including DECEMBER. That means that, going on saints’ days alone, December is crammed with probably at least a hundred holidays, right there. My personal favorite is the Feast of St. John of the Cross (December 14th). I’ve read a great deal of what Fray Juan wrote, and a great deal that has been written about him, and have concluded that he was a righteous dude. But there’s also the Feast Day of St. Stephen–December 26 (“Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen…”). And the Feast Day of St. John the Apostle / Evangelist–December 27. And the day dedicated to the Holy Innocents, the little babies killed by order of Herod the Great–December 28.
And then there’s “New Year’s.” For a lot of people, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day (holidays that, honestly, seem to me pretty meaningless) pack more emotional punch than does Christmas, and they look forward with unbridled zest to social and athletic events occurring on or around these holidays.
But wait, there’s more.
Everyone knows about Chanukah and Kwanzaa. Chanukah is a venerable Jewish holiday (eight days long) commemorating events that occurred in the Holy Land over 2000 years ago, during the period between the Biblical Testaments; it’s a genuinely significant holiday. If one of my Jewish neighbors invited me over to his house to help celebrate Chanukah, i’d be deeply honored. And Kwanzaa is a sort of synthetic Pan-African holiday (one week long) that has no real roots in history or ethnic tradition; it was invented in the 1960’s. But hey, whatever people want to celebrate. If one of my African-American neighbors were ever to wish me a “Habari Gani!” (not that this has ever happened or is likely to–i haven’t noticed that most Black Americans even observe Kwanzaa), i’d answer, “Yo, yo, the same right back at you.”
There are holidays observed in other religious and national traditions. I’m sure the month of December is crammed with many dozens of holidays deriving from various cultural traditions and belief-systems–and, America being the diverse melting pot that it is, there are grillions of people in Miami, New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles, heck, even Atlanta, who hail from furrin parts and who have brought a rich tapestry of celebratory days with them.
I must haste to add that many of these days are pagan observances dedicated to demonic gods and corrupt belief-systems, but it’s unclear to me what the relationship is between (1) whether a holiday represents the true structure of divine action and human life, and (2) whether it is socially okay for people to observe the day and greet each other accordingly. If someone were to wish me “Happy day dedicated to the demons whom i worship!” i suppose my reply would be, “Er, uhm, much joy to you!” And if i had sufficient cash on me, i might offer to buy ’em a beer and talk about spiritual reality. Because here is a person who is deeply confused regarding the basic structure of Reality. The point being this: the other person is perfectly at liberty to wish me a happy “thwondrakalini,” if such a horrifically-named holiday does indeed exist. And i am free to wish him a happy Christmas. Neither of us can legitimately be chastised for wishing the other a happy holiday.
The error, really, is in thinking that a “season” of the year is invariably dominated by a particular holiday.
We think of early July, for instance, as the “Independence Day” season, with fireworks, picnics and (on dishearteningly rare occasions) discussion of American political life, the reasons for the American Revolution, and an analysis of America’s founding documents. Then there’s the Easter season and the Thanksgiving season, and, inexplicably, the “Hallowe’en” season. The period leading up to St. Patrick’s Day features sales on green undergarments, and the days introducing Valentine’s Day (which is actually called “St. Valentine’s Day,” yo) are a gold mine for manufacturers of candy and greeting cards.
But holidays and actual calendar days are not the same thing.
May i repeat that, for emphasis? Because it’s really the single most important sentence in this blog post.
Holidays and actual calendar days are not the same thing.
A calendar day is a geophysical reality. A holiday is a cultural reality. They map over each other in various ways, but no calendar day can be immutably fastened to a holiday observance. The sidereal spinning of the earth as it hurtles through the heavens does not, in some essential manner, attach to our treasured holiday observances.
Hunker down with me here, and let’s randomly pick a calendar day–say, September 22nd. Is there a recognizable holiday on September 22? There may be, and my readership may be about to abandon the reading of this blog en masse (all two of y’all) for not knowing such an elementary fact. But whether or not there’s a famous holiday on that calendar day, one that everyone celebrates, the fact is that there are likely several holidays stacked on that one calendar day, each of which is observed by some ethnic or religious community, some of whom are doubtless living in Brooklyn. There are only 365 calendar days, but there are thousands of holidays.
So, to say that only one or two holidays may be observed and acknowledged during a given month is just not realistic. Every day of the year has a whole glomp of holidays stuck to it. That’s just the way things are.
So. What should i wish people during the month of December? Why, a Merry Christmas, of course! Because that’s what i’m excited about: the coming of the Son of God into the world–an objective fact that did indeed occur, in time and space, and which is, objectively, the single most important event in the history of the human race–to establish a Kingdom that had theretofore existed in incipient form among the Jews, but which was now being thrown open to the nations: The Kingdom of God. That’s good news worth celebrating!
Note however, that my neighbors are not required to wish me a reciprocal “Merry Christmas” if they’re not as excited as i am about this important news. You can’t make someone share your excitement about the good things you know to have happened, if they haven’t had access to the same information you have.
I will, therefore, wish you a Blessed Christmas season, accompanied by my hope that you will encounter the Living Christ (who does, objectively, exist–not as religious myth, symbol or ritual, but as the reigning Lord over a Cosmic Kingdom that “cannot be shaken”) in a deeper, richer and more immediate way than you ever have.
And if you choose to reply with a reference to some funky holiday that only one obscure tribe in the Punjab has ever even heard of, well then, a happy one of those to you, as well.