The holiday season is once again upon us and so I will take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. That’s right, I said, Merry Christmas; not Happy Holidays; not Joyous Yuletide; not Wondrous Winter Solstice. Merry Christmas.
“What’s this?” some of you might be asking, “Is he fixing to put the Christ back in Christmas?” No… well, yes… sort of. Let me try to explain.
First off, this will not be a discussion about one religion co-opting the calendar of another. Nor will it delve into the sacred versus secular celebration debate. I don’t feel like taking those on today. Rather, I’d like to keep it simple; I’m focusing on language; labels. What does it mean for an atheist to wish someone, someone like you, a Merry Christmas? I guess a lot of it depends on how you would like to receive it. Some of you might look at it as speaking to your own personal religious experience of this time of year. Others might take offence, seeing it as a way of excluding those of other faiths or, indeed, a non-believer during this time of year. Yet others might be simply confused by what I’m on about. Let me be as clear as I can be.
When I wish you a Merry Christmas, I mean to offer my desire for you to enjoy this time of year in whatever way you choose. Some make a special effort to reconnect with friends and family, others seek solitude in the midst of the hustle and bustle. There are those who simply detest this time of year, and to them I offer my greeting not to mock them, but to extend my hope that they can rise above their ill feelings or at the very least, weather the storm.
“That’s all fine and dandy,” you say, “but why not use Happy Holidays? Why, as a non-believer would you insist on using Merry Christmas which, as you are well aware, is derived from Christ’s mass?” Actually, I do often use Happy Holidays as an encompassing term for both Christmas and New Year’s, but I digress. I say Merry Christmas quite simply because, and here’s where I finally get to my point, that is what the day, and the surround holiday season is called. It’s Christmas. For better or for worse, regardless of past traditions, here and now in our Western culture, it’s called Christmas. Allow me to expand. If I happen to see you on the fifth day of the week, and I say to you, “Happy Friday,” it does not mean in any way that I am advocating for the renewal of worship for the Norse goddess Frigg, for whom the day is named. Again, if we are about to go our separate ways on the eve of a particular long weekend in Spring, I may very well say to you, “Happy Easter!” This does not mean that I am off to celebrate the Anglo-Saxon goddess, Ēostre, and am expecting you to do the same. Rather I am wishing you a pleasant holiday, which, since we are on the topic, is derived from holy day. In short, it’s all a trick of the language by way of etymology.
I may add that I grew up in the Christian tradition, and as such have been immersed in the pageantry of Christmas from a very young age. I guess what I’m trying to say with this point is that, on some level, I appeal to you as a “cultural Christian.”
So once again, I, Seán (which, ironically, is derived from the Hebrew Yehochanan, Yahweh is gracious) wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas!
… or Happy Christmas, as it were.