Spending my second Advent and Christmas season in the South, I’m still a bit taken aback by Christmas. I knew that there would be a perceived “War on Christmas” when I moved here. I still don’t understand why saying Happy Holidays, which originally emerged as a shorter way of saying “Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” along with Season’s Greetings, and now is a way of including Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Happy Hanukkah or Happy Kwanzaa or any other holiday (Yule or Solstice, anyone?) is such a bad thing to say. I get that people are worried about Christmas being left out, but with all the lights, carols, and traditions, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
But you probably know all that. What surprised me most by moving here was the prevalence of Santa, shopping and, well, Christmas outside of Christ. It’s not that much different than most of America, I suppose, but I was prepared for an anti-Santa and therefore anti-commercial Christmas. But I found the opposite. There is still much talk about needing Jesus but I hear more talk about shopping and Santa lists than I do about Christmas Eve services.
I took the above picture the March after we first moved here. What I have come to realize is that the signs “Keep Christ in Christmas” which appear all over the billboards on the highway this time of year don’t really mean that. What they mean is “Celebrate ONLY Christmas.” And Christmas can include everything here from Santa to Yuletide, shopping and commercialization.
What does not seem to constitute Christmas is anything that takes away from the consumerist hold on the holiday. Saying “Happy Holidays” does not imply a need to purchase a gift, whereas “Merry Christmas” does. So therefore, school functions, parades, community events and businesses that use “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” are antithetical to the consumerist drive of the season.
I get that the word “Holiday” can be overused and misused. Calling a Christmas Tree a “Holiday Tree” really makes no sense to me since trees are part of our European-American Christmas tradition from Germany. Cookies that are shaped like trees, ornaments, bells and candy canes are clearly Christmas cookies and “Holiday cookies” is just an absurd generalization. But overall, “Happy Holidays” should not cause the ruckus it seems to do every year.
I once heard a pastor say that it may be coming time to take Christ out of Christmas rather than keeping Christ in. As much as we love the carols, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” does not really correspond with “Joy to the World!” Most of our traditions are related to midwinter festivals that took place even before Christ was born and were not associated with the celebration of Christ’s birth for hundreds of years.
At my previous church, we celebrated “Christmas in July.” Often an attempt to boost slow summer sales by department stores, our “Christmas in July” was without the gift-giving list-making present-wrapping craze. We sang the Christmas carols of Christ’s birth. We celebrated suddenly, without preparation, as if Advent had happened every day and suddenly it was Christmas.
I don’t think we could ever get away from December 25th. And I still love watching “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and singing the silly songs of the season with my son. But trying to connect it all with Christ is perhaps not necessary. Maybe instead of trying to fit Jesus’ birth in by the Christmas tree and Santa coming down the chimney, we should consider a return to Epiphany celebrations, of Jesus’ manifestation to the world—away from the commercialization and craze. Then instead of worrying about saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” we can say, “Happy Epiphany!” and not worry about the confusion with the commercial world, whose sales are done by then.
We really should not be threatened by “Happy Holidays.” There are many who celebrate Christmas who aren’t Christian and don’t connect the date to the birth of Jesus anyway. But I sense that in general, there is a deeper desire to get away from the commercialization and get back to celebrating a season of peace and charity, goodwill and celebration. This more general seasonal, communal feeling is not necessitated by sales and shopping.
Perhaps it is time to take Christ out of Christmas, or at least take away the connection of Christ to consumption. I think Jesus would be far less concerned with us saying “Happy Holidays” than our Christian acceptance of consumerism tied to the celebration of His birth. Rather, I think growing the celebration around peace, charity and hospitality for all people would be more in tune with the message of John 3:17 of Christ coming so that the world might be saved through Him, instead of condemning those who say “Happy Holidays.”