The Day “Merry Christmas!” Died

Christmas? What Christmas?

Did you all have a great Christmas?! Whaddya get?! Cuz, you know, outside of the whole thing with Jesus and all, that’s what really matters.

Speaking of which: It seems to me that this is the year that the phrase “Merry Christmas” died, finally choked to death by the vapid, opportunistic ambiguity of “Happy Holidays.”

To be clear: I like the sentiment behind “Happy Holidays.” I think it’s good and important to acknowledge that the “Christmas” season really is a holiday season; that it’s also the time of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. I’ve got zero problem acknowledging that. What I do have a problem with is perfectly captured in an experience my wife and I had at Disneyland last week.

It was Christmas Eve day. Cat and I were at Disneyland with a couple friend we were visiting in Los Angeles. As you may know, every year Disneyland puts in its Main Street plaza a Christmas tree so huge it would freak out Paul Bunyan. The four of us happened to be in the shops near the tree when we heard the rich tones of the Omnipotent Disney Announcer announce that the lights on the tree were about to turn on. We and the other fifteen or twenty thousand other people in the immediate vicinity quickly crowded about the tree. Yay! The lighting of the Christmas tree!

The announcer began preparing us for the lovely spectacle, by talking about the power of wishing and hoping, and how good little boys and girls never yank the wings off fairies, or whatever. But he came to the Big Moment, and everyone held their breath as they waited for this magnificent, splendidly decorated tree to light up—and then he said, “And now, as we light the tree, let us all say in one voice, “‘Happy Holidays!'” And you could just feel everyone deflate as the tree was lit up. The reaction wouldn’t have been less enthusiastic if the thing hadn’t lit up at all.

People were all geared up to cry “Merry Christmas!” and were disappointed they didn’t get to. Telling people to say “Happy Holidays!” when a Christmas tree is lit is like having people sing “Old MacDonald” when a birthday cake is brought out. It’s just … FAIL.

Because that is a Christmas tree they were lighting. I don’t mind if Disneyland or anyone else wants to turn their Christmas tree into a “Holiday tree.” But then they need to make it a holiday tree. But that part of “Happy Holidays” never happens. No store or business puts a little Menorahs on its tree. I didn’t see any dradles on the Disneyland tree. Not a Kwanzaa communal cup brightened its boughs. It was strictly a Christmas tree. Those were Christmas decorations on that tree, and nothing else.

It drives me crazy the way retailers, businesses, and advertisers are delighted to keep all the stuff that marks Christmas as Christmas—the tree, the songs, the presents, the decorations, Santa Claus—to help them make money, but then in every last way distance themselves from the core of what Christmas is actually about. Either physically and truly include the other traditions, or call Christmas what it is. But don’t lie about what you’re doing. Don’t pretend to be what you’re not. Don’t take out the heart of something, and then ask us to enjoy just the outer shell of that thing.

The bottom line is that, like it or not, Christmas is a Christian holiday. It’s actually about the birth of Christ. That’s why it’s called Christmas, and not Holidaymas, or Cheermas, or Wishmas. That’s not a Hanukkah tree they put up every year at Disneyland—or that we see in every store, or that gets painted on every window. It’s a Christmas tree. Always has been. Always will be.

You can have him endorsing everything from a garden hose to pantyhose, and Santa Claus will still be Saint Nicholas. Still a saint. Still Christian.

I’m good for “Happy Holidays” meaning everyone’s holidays. But it’s bullshooters to co-opt all the traditional Christmas symbols and markers, and at the same time refuse to acknowledge the reality of what they actually symbolize and mark. If Starbucks wants to pretend that Christmas is about nothing more substantial than wishes and hope, fine. But no fair hanging those words on Christmas ornaments, and then trying to pretend that December 25th isn’t really Christmas. That’s the sneaky, lying sort of thing that only bad little boys and girls do.





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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Happy Christmahanukwanzaakah!

  • Judy

    Merry Christmas and Happy Festivus. I'm with you. I don't care at all for political correctness. It's not a holiday, it's a holy day.

  • Judy: Festivus! Pretty much the funniest Seinfeld thing ever, yes. Ridiculously funny. The first time I saw it, I thought it was so funny i just froze. I couldn't even laugh; it, like, short-circuited EVERYTHING in me it was so perfect. (And good line about "holiday/holy day." Did you make that up?)

  • Robin

    ExACTly. Costco sent out an e-card ON Christmas, but it said "Happy Holidays." And a Christmas tree is for Christmas. Ugh. It's the stupid use of the phrase that is annoying, not its very existence.

  • James

    I hated this political correctness when I worked in retail years ago. We were supposed to say "Happy Holidays" so as not to offend anyone (I'm assuming), but when someone was buying Christmas cards it seemed silly. And honestly, who is going to be offended by "Merry Christmas"?

  • John, so rarely do I disagree with you, but:

    Christmas is not a Christian holiday. It is a combination of various pagan (not always a pejorative, btw) holidays celebrating the end of the darkest day of the year which means that light is on the way. A perfect holiday for converted Christians to convert to the celebration of Jesus' birth (which means that the troubling incorrect winter birth date was not that arbitrary at all). But it was never originally a Christian holiday.

    Nor is it now. The season owes more to Adam Smith than Jesus Christ. Just look at where you were when offended by the "PC-iness" of Happy Holidays – Disneyland for crissakes. You think they care anything about Jesus or God? They would be wishing you Happy Walt's Day if it made more sense financially. (Hmm, now with a tie-in to Wal-Mart, that just might work….)

    I don't think that the Jesus who tossed the tables in the temple would be too happy with Macy's, Gimbles, Bloomingdales, K-Mart (none of who's founders ever believed in Jesus as Messiah) etc putting "Christ" into their marketing campaigns. Now the (Sam) Waltons are practicing Christians, I guess. Shame on them.

    Have Xtra X-filled Merry Holiday, dude.

  • Liz Edmundson

    Merry Christmas!

  • Pat

    Speaking of "real" reasons for the season – Happy winter solstice, everybody! Evergreens were cut down and decorated to celebrate the winter season by pagans long before they were "Christmas trees". Maybe we should call them "solstice trees" – how about it? Hope your holidays are all filled with joy, whatever you choose to call them!

  • I never understood why some Christians have an absolute hissy that -gasp!- someone might have the audacity to respect someone else's relgious event that lands on/about the same day….

  • Excellent distinction John. Instead of honoring all the traditions, the way they did it honors none of them. I would think if Disney wanted to be truly inclusive they could do the tree lighting and yell "Merry Christmas!" AND a menorah lighting and yell "Happy Hannukah!". Or something.

  • (and if anyone could do a spectacular giant menorah, Disney could)

  • onemansbeliefs

    I do not find this surprising, because for a number of years now the "All Mighty Dollar" has gotten higher priority than God Almighty…

  • Tim

    Forgive me if I come off too serious or preachy… but I think we've all have figured out that ol' Walt was a secular humanist. He still knew how to pander to an American public that still claims to be 80% Christian. He created one ideal of the peaceable kingdom viewed through the eyes of children that don't really give a rip if their pals are white, black, yellow, red, purple, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or people who kill gay baby whales for Jesus.

    Jesus was a uniter. I love that.

    If cheering "Happy Holidays" to a fake pine tree (with a net worth exceeding my own) takes away from that, I'll eat some of your Grandma's crappy dried out fruit cake.

  • RE: 'Because that is a Christmas tree they were lighting.'

    What exactly makes a decorated dying conifer a 'Christmas' tree? Do round colored glass balls have a 'Chrisitan Only' trademark? Does tinsle come in 'For Christians Only' i packaging? Do strings of lights have 'Not for Non-Christian Use' restrictions?

    If I put a star on top instead of an angel then do I have a Pagan tree? If I put a snowfake on it does it make it a Solsitice tree?

    As someone pointed out, trees were decorated for Yule and other Solsitce traditions in other faiths. When did it become a Christian only thing?

    For that matter, when did Christmas become a Christian only thing?

    As a non-Christian child Christmas for me was about honoring loved ones and friends by showing your love for them with gifts. It was not about some religion I never practiced (and still dont). Christmas was about compassion. It was about helping others perhaps less fortunate than you. It was about the spirit of love; sharing love and friendship, compassion and kindness.

    Christmas was about touching anothers' with joy.

    When did this become a Christian only thing?

    Why does Christmas have to be a Christian only thing….?

  • JJ

    Common sense? How dare you. 🙂

  • Aurora

    Hanukkah is one thing, although overblown in reaction to the mega-phenomenon that is Christmas.

    But "Kwanzaa" deserves no respect, mention, or acknowledgement, especially not from Christians. It is not a real, legitimate holiday.

    It was invented out of nothing in the 1960s, using no authentic traditions ever celebrated by any actual Africans, by an anti-American, anti-white, anti-Christian Marxist, who said openly that it was meant to be an alternative to Christmas, that Jesus was psychotic, and that Christianity was a white religion that black people should shun.

    The fact that over time corporations and even government officials have been bamboozled into praising this hateful fraud that nobody actually celebrates is a sad statement of how gullible and nice people can be, and how afraid most are of being called "racist".

    Stop listing "Kwanzaa" in any list of holidays. Ignore it.

  • Aurora: Are you African-American?

  • Yeah, John.

  • HAH! Ric!!!

  • Judy

    Hey, John…no I didn't make up the holiday/holy day thing. I read it somewhere…a bumper sticker? Online? I WISH I had made it up!

  • AMEN!!!!

  • charita

    I feel that the true reason for the holiday, the fact that it is Christ's birthday has been forgotten and the holiday has become just a time for everyone else to receive, I always believed Jesus was the reason for the season. If he had not been born, then he would not have died for my sins. I think his birth is a substantial event that should not be taken lightly or forgotten. So I say , "Happy birthday Jesus!"

  • Berkshire

    If you are going to lift text directly from Wikipedia, maybe you can lift the entire context, in fairness.
    “During the early years of Kwanzaa, Karenga said that it was meant to be an alternative to Christmas, that Jesus was psychotic, and that Christianity was a white religion that black people should shun.[7] However, as Kwanzaa gained mainstream adherents, Karenga altered his position so that practicing Christians would not be alienated, then stating in the 1997 Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture, “Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday.”[8]
    Many Christian African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa do so in addition to observing Christmas.”

    I know a number of African Americans who *d0*, indeed, celebrate Kwanzaa, and they find it speaks to something deeper within them than even their identity as Christians (which is also part of who they are). I’ve never heard any of them mention its founder or beliefs held by him, by the way. To them, it speaks to their membership in a community with a shared history, and shared ancestry in a place far away, from which they were removed unwillingly. Some have told me they celebrate it out of a desire to have something they have created as a community that is their own, and not thrust upon them by the dominant culture. It was not invented out of “nothing”, as you rudely suggest. It was created out of a shared and painful history, and a contemporary sense of alienation and disenfranchisement from the mainstream, Caucasian-centric culture.
    If you have a problem with that, you are certainly free to ignore it. But don’t tell me or anyone else what we should and should not acknowledge. Who made you the arbiter of what is and is not real or legitimate? Congratulations on your lack of fear of sounding like a racist. You must be very proud. It’s too bad I’m so late in commenting, as I doubt you’ll even see this.
    Happy Kwanzaa to you anyway, Aurora.

  • I think people tend to get dumb about this all around. When I worked retail, I had no problem telling people “Happy Holidays.” If it keeps the boss and everyone happy, why not? I currently live in a diverse little community with a large Jewish community so there *are* big Menorahs on lawns here, as well as the Christmas trees. I always took it that the tree wasn’t strictly a birth of Christ thing, that it came out of old pagan traditions which is probably why I’ve never met a Wiccan that takes offense to it….

    It would seem to me that the people who get most upset about this stuff are the hardcore atheist types, which makes me wonder why they don’t object to Happy Holidays as Holi- and Days are “Holy Days” and the idea of days being “holy” being okay to them?

    There was a big stink in Philly recently. A Christmas Village held every year – an artisan crafts/shops village with a great big tree out front had to get changed to the Holiday Village because a couple of people complained. By a couple of people, I mean, actually… two people. This was something that was enjoyed by many and two people had to go put a wrench into it. Now, on the other hand, they did have a point about it being held on civic property – and if changing “Christmas” to “Holidays” can keep them happy enough for people to still be able to hold the village, why not? People were fighting over this thing and I thought “Yeah, both sides are being babies here.” – From my view, as long as no one’s trying to take away the village itself, the people who go to buy crafts there will still know what it’s about.

  • LSS

    a person who doesn’t celebrate christmas COULD buy christmas cards for all their friends who do celebrate christmas, as well as other cards for their friends who celebrate the other holidays.

  • LSS

    i agree that Happy Holidays is more inclusive when you don’t know what the person you’re greeting might be celebrating. i agree that on some level, “a christmas tree is for christmas”.

    but it’s really a pagan symbol originally, and there is quite a bit of beauty in the idea of light in the darkest night of the year reminding the people that winter won’t last forever.

    and i can totally see why the ancient christians wanted to co-opt that pagain symbolism by overlapping it with a “christian holiday” (even though that wasn’t Jesus’ actual birthday), because as synchretism(sp?) goes, it doesn’t really get any better than that!

  • LSS

    oh i forgot the important part of my comment. i just saw a presentation about Indian culture at my work, and they happened to talk about a few main holidays of India, including Diwali, something else, and Christmas. (sorry for my memory lapse). but the point was that many Indians were happy to celebrate each others’ holidays. the implication was that Catholics might light some lights for Diwali and Hindus might be likely to put stars out for Christmas. i think most popular holidays of most cultures/religions have a positive meaning. if we could all celebrate each other’s ones (at a “believe what you can” level), couldn’t we learn a lot from that?! just think how many more chances of reflection and remembrance we would have throughout the year!

    now, having said that, i am pretty glad i don’t have to fast during the whole daylight of each day for a month during Ramadan… being one of those people that gets low blood sugar if i don’t have some snacks during the day… and i know devout muslims who have the same problem and actually stay sick for a month when it’s their Ramadan! (*_*)

  • Allie

    It’s worth pointing out, I think, that “Happy Holidays” was not, in the 40’s and 50’s when it originated, just a way to avoid offending your Jewish customers when your business sent out Christmas cards, but also a way to greet people during the whole holiday season. You know, that season? The one that includes the secular holiday of New Year’s Day? Happy Holidays used to mean, to most people, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Those were the days when people left the tree up because conveniently it meant the house was already decorated for the New Year’s Eve party, instead of rushing to get it on the curb by Boxing Day, because everyone had been sick of looking at it since a week after Thanksgiving.

    I note that this was written in 2009. Wasn’t that the year that Starbucks had the signs that said “It’s Red again”? I’m not easily offended but that offended me. It’s not fricken RED. It’s Christmas. Or Yule. Or New Year’s, Ramadan, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, or what have you. But in no way is anyone anywhere celebrating red.

  • Allie

    Well, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day were also made up out of whole cloth. Yet they became popular because they met a perceived need.

    I think it’s unfortunate on one level that Kwanzaa doesn’t have much connection to authentic African traditions. But on another level, that’s kind of the point. Slaves had their traditions ripped from them by force. They were prevented from preserving their culture. The child of slaves might be sold to another family and never learn one thing about what his mother and father did on holidays. By the time their descendents were free to exchange traditions and practice them openly, only remnants were left. It seems really unfair to criticize people for wanting to recreate a part of what was taken from them, and to create anew to celebrate their survival and who they have become.

    Anyway, one of the most Christian men I know celebrates Kwanzaa. He’s a street preacher, possibly a little crazy, but since I watched him talk an abused prostitute into leaving her pimp and going home to her mother at 2 am in a convenience store I’m a huge fan. If Kwanzaa works for him I’m cool with it.