The other day, a friend told me of a cartoon she saw recently which showed a man standing in front of his house with another guy, pointing at all the Christmas lights and other decorations he’d put up. In the middle of these was the lit-up message “Have A Nice Day”. The caption read, “I didn’t want to offend anybody”.
And this from another friend, in an email response to an impromptu Christmas gathering of musicians last week:
“It was wonderful to see you all. Thanks Mike. I guess you didn’t know you were throwing a party but don’t all of the best parties happen that way, when you least expect them.
Merry Christmas everyone, and as Tiny Tim would say, ‘God bless us, everyone!’ Or, if you prefer not to keep Christmas, or celebrate anything for that matter, because you wouldn’t want to exclude anyone, or if Christmas is just too fucking cheerful for you …. Then … um … well, just be.”
These are both examples of a push-back I’ve noticed this year against the banishment of the phrase “Merry Christmas” in favour of the safer “Season’s Greetings”, “Happy Holidays” or whatever. And other signs of the general whitewashing (no pun intended) of Christmas in the interests of being politically correct. I must confess it’s been driving me crazy this year, because the mealy-mouthed phrases have been spinning off into other mind-numbing ones. To wit, companies now have “Festive Winter Socials” instead of Christmas parties. People now gather to sing “seasonal favourites”, instead of Christmas carols and songs. Perhaps silliest of all, I saw a sign recently advertising the sale of “Festive Trees” instead of Christmas trees.
All of these euphemisms have turned Christmas into the elephant in the room by invoking a kind of paltry and enforced pretending, a bizarre parlour game of make-believe. Because, as we all know, the person whose birth is celebrated every December 25th is still named Jesus Christ. And until his name is changed to “Festive Boy”, or “Happy Holidays Spirit-Man” – which ain’t going to happen – then who are we fooling with all these fake slogans and terms? Everybody knows it’s a Christmas party, they’re Christmas carols and Christmas trees, Christmas presents and Christmas cards. Yet here we are, buying into this tepid nonsense of saying “Happy Holidays” or “Best of the Season” instead of “Merry Christmas”.
It’s absurd, we’re surrounded with an overkill of commercial Christmas symbolism everywhere we turn, on the streets and in malls and on TV and radio, but let’s not mention the “C” word . It’s like “The Germans” episode of John Cleese’s comic masterpiece Fawlty Towers, where the inn is suddenly full of older German tourists and Basil Fawlty admonishes his staff, “Whatever you do, don’t mention the War!”. Of course, this plants that very subject in his subconscious and he mentions it almost constantly, managing to offend everyone at every turn. To paraphrase dear old Basil, “Don’t mention Christmas – I did once, but I think I got away with it.”
I mean, what next? The same old Christmas movies, songs and TV specials are still broadcast regularly. What, are the p.c. (politically correct) language-Nazis going to turn their ever-vigilant eyes and ears to these and expunge every mention of Christmas in them by overdubbing a less offensive word or phrase? It hasn’t come to that, at least not yet.
The last time I checked, the classic Charles Dickens Christmas story is still titled “A Christmas Carol” and the many film versions of it are aired annually. Surely people of all religious persuasions are touched by its universal message that greed and selfishness are forces of evil which can be redeemed by kindness and generosity and that all men should be mindful of this throughout the year and not just on one day.
So, it would seem that it’s okay for the big boys who run television, the movies and massive retail outlets to trumpet Christmas from every height because it means big money, but for us poor everyday slobs, it’s verboten to even say “Merry Christmas”.
The trouble with these new “Christmas substitution” phrases is not just their demonstrable phoniness, but their cautious linguistic blandness and lack of feeling, as with most things instilled by fear. I sense that Christians and non-Christians alike feel this and it has created a new kind of awkwardness, the awkwardness of insipid over-politeness. “Happy Holidays” doesn’t really mean anything, it sounds like something you used to wish your schoolmates before every summer vacation. And what exactly does “Season’s Greetings” mean, anyway? The season is winter, and not many people in the northern hemisphere – my daughter-in-law being one exception – see much reason to celebrate it. Winter is cold, harsh, dark and messy. Yes, freshly-fallen snow is pretty, until it becomes …. pretty awful. So, these newly-imposed sayings have no soul, because they have no clarity, no tradition.
Aside from the lamentably antiseptic language, the reasoning behind all this Christmas euphemizing is simply wrong-headed. The politically correct thinkers among us would argue that, while the many non-Christians in our pluralistic society have the choice to ignore all of the prominent signs of Christmas and not partake in it, when someone wishes them a “Merry Christmas” publicly, then it supposedly crosses a threshold. According to the party line, it becomes personal and awkward, excludes and offends them, because they don’t celebrate Christmas.
But, is this truly so? Have we really thought this through? I don’t think so, because here’s the thing: Nobody who celebrates Christmas, wishes anyone – Christian or non-Christian – a Merry Christmas with the intention of offending, excluding or creating awkwardness, that’s simply not the idea. It shouldn’t be interpreted in a narrowly religious or literal way, any more than the existence of Santa Claus is to be taken literally, it’s more of a spiritual, non-denominational thing. I can’t speak for all Christians because I’m not formally religious in any real sense, but I was raised Christian and celebrate Christmas. Here’s what I mean when I wish anyone, regardless of their faith, a Merry Christmas:
I wish that you and your loved ones are safe and warm, healthy and happy. I hope you are all good and kind to each other and feel some peace and joy as another hectic year winds down and you can take some time from the humdrum rat-race of everyday existence to reflect on the blessings of being alive as a human being on this earth despite the troubles we all face.
Something like that, anyway. Most of us wish that for everyone. because we wish it for ourselves. Wishing someone a Merry Christmas doesn’t seek to exclude them – even if they don’t keep Christmas – but rather to include them. It says, “I keep Christmas and if you don’t, I still wish the best of what it means for me, to you”. It doesn’t mean “You should get with it and join the Christian club, look at all the fun you’re missing”. Or. “I know you don’t celebrate Christmas, but maybe if I keep saying ‘Merry Christmas’, you’ll see the error of your ways”. I simply don’t see how Christians celebrating their prime religious holiday using the proper and time-honoured terminology runs down anyone else’s religion or customs. The idea of living in a pluralistic society is not to ensure the inclusion of all by whitewashing a major religious holiday, but rather to promote awareness of other ones, which has been happening.
And, while on the subject of offending people, one is tempted to ask the p.c. milquetoasts, “What about those who are offended by not being wished a Merry Christmas?” How do you tell who they are, because they’re not just Christians, or “white people”. The thing is, Christmas is more multi-theistic and cosmopolitan than we’ve been led to believe and here are a few of many examples: Two of the most iconic Christmas songs ever – “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song” – were written by Jews and, for that matter, Jesus himself was a Jew. More than once, I’ve been wished a Merry Christmas by Chinese or East Indian people, before I’ve had a chance to wish them one because I didn’t think it would be appropriate. I know Jews and Muslims who celebrate Christmas with more gusto than some of the Christians I know. Not for religious reasons, but secular ones – they happen to like the customs – the food, get-togethers, songs and so on, the spirit of the thing. There’s nothing wrong or particularly odd about this. Among the best Christmas parties I’ve attended have been thrown by one of my oldest and best friends, Mark Eisenman, who’s Jewish, and his wife Sue, who isn’t. Given all this, there has to be a better way of including people than simply banishing “Merry Christmas”, which is just plain stupid and barren.
To put the shoe on another religious foot for a moment, so to speak …….. If a Jewish friend or colleague wishes me a “Happy Hanukkah” – which has happened – I don’t feel slighted or excluded. On the contrary, I feel included and honoured, as if they were saying, “Look, I know you don’t celebrate it, but I wish the best for you anyway, in the terms I know“. And even if I think it’s a case of them mistaking me for being Jewish, I still don’t feel offended or awkward, because so what? Is being mistaken for a Jew so bad? Not at all, and neither is being mistaken for a Christian or a follower of any other faith for that matter, if we all were just a little more open-minded about it.
Along these lines, my old friends Mark and Simmy Zaret invited me and other Gentile friends to the bar mitzvahs of both their sons, Sam and Zach. This was a great honour, which implicitly said, “You’re not part of our religion or traditions, but you’ve known our boys since they were born and are an important enough friend that we want you to be there for this special ceremony”. It was also an invitation to find out more about other people’s customs, what a ritual like this means in the big picture, if not the specifics. I don’t speak Hebrew, but I did some research into the ceremony so that it would mean more to me, so I could enjoy it more. And, you know what? It worked, I really did enjoy it, I found it very moving, meaningful and soulful. Especially the second one, because I was more familiar with the ceremony and not so worried about my own ignorance of the details. I simply focused on the hard work each of the Zaret boys had put into preparing for this rite of passage, the pride of their parents and the beautiful mingling of joy and gravity in the proceedings.
For much less happy reasons, it was similar when I attended the funerals of Mark Eisenman’s mother and father, who unfortunately died within the same year and both of whom I knew and liked very well. It was not only a chance to support one of my oldest and dearest friends in a time of need, but also to see the customs and rituals of another faith firsthand. The speech of the rabbi and the songs, the placing of stones on the headstone, everyone throwing shovels of dirt onto the casket. Again, these were not traditions I was aware of, but I found them fascinating and moving and am a better, broader person for knowing about them.
So, if you want to remain ignorant of and closed to the traditions of other people, you can, it’s all too easy. You can either refuse to invite others into yours or turn down these invitations when they come from others – unfortunately and all too often, it works both ways. Narrow-mindedness begets exclusion and alienation, while open-mindedness begets understanding and inclusiveness. In regard to keeping Christmas and its sayings, the forces of political correctness have saddled us with the worst of both worlds – setting up non-Christians with the expectation of being excluded when that is not the intention – while denying those who celebrate Christmas the simple pleasure of uttering its oldest, most basic wish. To this kind of thinking, I quote a familiar Christmas icon in saying, “Bah, humbug.”
And so, in the spirit of all this and with no desire to offend or exclude anyone, I want to take this opportunity to wish all readers – no matter who, where, or “what” you are – a very Merry Christmas.
And a Happy New Year, if it’s “not out of keeping with the situation”.
© 2014 – 2015, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.
Beautifully said, Steve!