Politics & Policy

December’s C-Word

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the December 31, 2003, issue of National Review.

When you go to Capitol Hill, you’d better not call the Christmas tree the Christmas tree: It’s the “Capitol Holiday Tree,” and that’s official. (Hang on, aren’t the Republicans in charge?) The White House is still holding firm, however: The tree over which it presides remains the National Christmas Tree.

I don’t know about y’all in the more Neanderthal parts of America, but in the less Neanderthal, “Christmas” is pretty gauche. When you say “Merry Christmas,” you might better have belched. On a recent Sunday, I attended a Christmas concert at Lincoln Center (New York)–the soprano Deborah Voigt was singing with the New York Philharmonic. The program said “holiday concert,” of course. But a poster outside said “Christmas Concert.” Apparently, someone had not quite gotten with the program (so to speak)–hope he wasn’t fired!

A lot of us have been irked by “Happy Holidays,” in place of “Merry Christmas,” for a long time. Many years ago, I was working at a large firm in Washington, and it was “Happy Holidays,” “Happy Holidays,” “Happy Holidays,” until you wanted to scream. One afternoon, just before Christmas, I said to a friend there, “Merry Christmas.” I said it in a soft, gentle, but kind of mischievous way. He just grinned at me, understandingly. You would have thought we were engaging in something subversive, which was just plain weird.

Incidentally, Thanksgiving may be in trouble–I mean, the word. A couple of years ago, as I was touching down in my home state, the stewardess (oops, there I go again) said, “And a happy holiday to everyone.” She meant Thanksgiving. But the word seemed a little risky, somehow. More and more, I hear, after that long weekend, “Did you have a good holiday?” Et tu, Thanksgiving?

It’s astonishing how many people have internalized the “holiday” business. At that Debbie Voigt concert, I was with a friend who said, at intermission, “I just love the holiday.” I had to say, “You mean Christmas?” And she said, “Yes! That’s what I mean! How did I get out of the habit of saying that?” One does. It’s even possible to be proud. When I was in college, a kid came back to the dorm and announced, beaming, “Today, I said the president and his spouse”–meaning Ronald and Nancy Reagan–”and I didn’t even have to think about it. It came naturally.” He was in no danger of saying wife.

Every December, I write about holidayitis, and so do loads of others. In fact, there’s a vast literature on this subject, if “literature” is not too grand a word for Internet kvetching and other popular expressions of protest. A website called GrinchList.com is fairly typical–it was created “in response to” a “growing censorship” and to “revisionist policies and practices concerning Christmas,” evident in stores, schools, offices, and media. Yes, there’s fed-uppery in the land. And National Review readers are among the feddest up. How do I know? Because on our website recently–NationalReview.com–I invited readers to give examples of holiday/Christmas outrages, or annoyances, and they responded with a thunderous yawp.

As several readers tell it, even ushers in church, reflexively, wish people a “happy holiday.” They have to be reminded, “We’re in our own church! It’s okay to say ‘Merry Christmas’!” One man pointed out that the Salvation Army’s mission is, in its words, “to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name.” Yet while our reader was bell-ringing, he was admonished by a co-worker not to say “Merry Christmas.”

And how about those Christmas trees? Everywhere, they’re called “holiday trees,” but in some places they’re called “unity trees,” “culture trees,” or even “seasonal conifers.” A high-school activities director wrote to me, “Every year we have a program once known as The Giving Tree.” (This has to do with helping needy families.) “But a tree is apparently a potent religious symbol, capable of inducing alienation, or even conversion.” So The Giving Tree became The Giving Snowman–which became The Giving Snowperson. No, really.

In the workplace, “Christmas” is a faux pas, at best. One company lists its holidays thus: “New Year’s Day, Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day [yes], and December 25th.” December 25th. These people could not bring themselves to utter the C-word. Christmas parties are out, and in are, of course, holiday parties, seasonal gatherings, and end-of-year celebrations. A man writes, “My law firm does a ‘Christmas in April’ charity event. But it’s ‘holiday’ at Christmas! I’d like them to do a ‘Christmas in April’ in December for a change.” One company decided to avoid naming holidays altogether: Now they just have “scheduled down days.”

Schools? Gimme a break. Christmas may not be mentioned in the properly modern American school. A Christmas party is apt to be a “snowflake social.” And the Christmas concert has gone the way of the McGuffey Reader, or slate: These are winter concerts, with nothing too Jesusy, please, or maybe “nights of seasonal entertainment” (a new one on me).

Well, surely you’re left with a Secret Santa, aren’t you? Nice, secular Santa? No way. Mr. Claus is entirely too Christmas-specific. At a Harvard dorm, they were going to have a Secret Santa, but orthodoxy asserted itself, and the name was changed to Secret Winter Snow Friend. My correspondent says, “I made a plea on behalf of all anagram lovers that we compromise and use the name ‘Secret Satan.’” Elsewhere, Secret Santas have become Winter Wizards.

For years, the City of Pittsburgh had “Sparkle Season,” complete with a mascot, Sparkle, who, it was widely observed, looked rather like a flamboyant Klansman. Now they have, simply, “Downtown Pittsburgh: A Holiday Tradition with a New Twist.” (Sparkle was twist enough for me.) In San Diego, “Christmas on the Prado” has become “December Nights.” Other localities hold a “Frost Time Festival.” The euphemisms are almost invariably gag-making.

Business is playing ball, too–oh, is it. Roughly a million readers wrote me to protest a TV ad from a pet-product company. A husband is teasing his wife about all the presents she’s bought for their dog. “But it’s his first holiday!” she pleads. Really? Wasn’t he around for Veterans Day? Starbucks sells both “Christmas Blend” and “Holiday Blend,” depending. Depending on what, I’m not quite sure. And in card sections of supermarkets, you may see “Birthday,” “Graduation,” “Hanukkah,” etc., and then–once more–”December 25th.” The naming of all other holidays seems kosher. Even Easter.

Among our readers, a great many Jews said, essentially, “If you’re saying ‘holiday’ on my account, please stop! It grates!” In my experience, the more religious, or even culturally serious, a person is, the more he’s apt to dislike “Happy Holidays.” The blandly generic has no taste. And I salute the reader who wrote, “Have you ever attended someone else’s party–someone’s birthday, anniversary, graduation? It wasn’t your event, but didn’t you share the joy? That’s how I feel. I’m not Christian, but I look forward to Christmas every year. Especially the music.”

Ah, the music, and what’s happened to it: That’s a whole ‘nother volume of complaint.

Many traditionalists seize on the fact that “holidays” derives from “holy days,” so, really, the joke’s on those who think that they’re skirting something with “holidays.” True: and “decimate” used to mean one of every ten, blah, blah, blah. There is no great etymological comfort.

But if it’s comfort you want, you may look to the White House, and its current occupant. A peppy lady in Connecticut says, “Before the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, the TV commentators were going on and on about a ‘festival of lights’ and the ‘holiday tree’ and all that. And then the president comes on, and he says ‘Christmas’ about a jillion times, and even worse stuff, like ’star in the East’ and ‘God’s purpose.’ It was thrilling!”

Forgive me for ending on a political note–even in a political magazine–but I must ask: Do you have the feeling that George W. Bush is the last un-PC–even anti-PC–president we’ll ever have? He calls terrorists terrorists, when he’s not calling them evildoers. He says “Merry Christmas” with abandon (I happen to know). Put it this way: If, sometime before 2009, the National Christmas Tree has switched to National Holiday Tree, Bush did not win the 2004 election.

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