‘Happy holy days,” we hear at Christmas, if we have ears to hear. Do we?
If the sound of “Happy holidays!” or the sight of that salute in a store window upsets you, consider the magi. No one can accuse them of discounting the solemnity of Christmas. They followed the star of Bethlehem assiduously and arrived bearing appropriate gifts, including a couple of relatively humble botanical products, frankincense and myrrh, whose value was in their deep meaning, not their ostentation or cost. Commemorating the anniversary of the Nativity of Our Lord all these years later, we may feel that the occasion calls for a big old pine tree brightly lit and lavishly decorated, and against that backdrop the word “holidays” may seem puny, a mere sprig, but follow it down to its roots. There you hit gold.
For most of us, the halo of holiness around the word “Christmas” has faded, although not vanished. It still flickers, which is part of the reason so many people are shy about pronouncing or writing out those nine letters. (More on that below.) A subsidiary, mundane reason they may decide to exercise caution is that they don’t know your religion.
“Well, maybe I’m not a Christian,” you might retort, “and maybe I’m only grateful when someone who is wishes me ‘Merry Christmas.’ Maybe I choose to receive the goodwill that the expression conveys and not to take offense at the underlying assumption about the identity of the Messiah.” You’re generous in that case, dear reader, but the person picking his words carefully doesn’t know your thought process, so give him a break if he trots out “Happy holidays,” which works for Hanukkah too.
Speaking of which: What all religions have in common is candles. At my confirmation, a sacrament that Catholics receive typically in early adolescence, a relative gave me a greeting card meant for a bar mitzvah. Clearly he hadn’t paid attention, but I found his error fascinating. The design on the card featured a menorah, a candelabrum that serves as a traditional symbol of Judaism but also looks pretty Catholic; you can imagine a similar arrangement of candles lit for some special liturgical function in the sanctuary of a church.
Traditional Protestants take a dim view of the Judaic echoes in Catholic Christianity. The Mass is especially scandalous to them, given its ambiguous relationship to Temple sacrifice, which has been superseded by Christ’s shedding his blood on Mount Calvary — that’s the theology, anyway. I won’t rehearse here the ancient bitter arguments of church against synagogue and, later, of Reformers against Rome but will only point to the irony of being pure in your Protestantism while insisting that everyone recognize “Christ-Mass” by that name.
A few people who avoid saying “Merry Christmas” may do so out of scruples passed down to them from John Knox, but these days that’s rare. More common, sad to say, is the fear that public acknowledgment of a holy day peculiar to a particular religion will be interpreted as a dog whistle to imaginary theocrats plotting to overturn the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Some people outright hate the particular religion and therefore any proper nouns that are sacred to it; although the separate elements of “Christ-mas” are muddled when glued together in that composite, they’re still discernible, and those who loathe the faith tend to be rigorous, no less than those who hold to the narrower doctrine of strict religious neutrality.
Christian, let it be. Remember Joseph in Egypt, addressing his brothers who sold him into slavery: “You intended evil against me, but God turned it into good.” Throughout Scripture, God stresses his regard for our intentions, the content of our hearts, and calls out discrepancies between what we hold there silently and what we profess with our mouth. He urges us to watch our words perhaps because he appreciates better than we do their independent power, which no amount of mental reservation or finger-crossing can undo.
God urges us to watch our words perhaps because he appreciates better than we do their independent power, which no amount of mental reservation or finger-crossing can undo.
“You are the king of the Jews,” Pilate says, evidently with an intonation to signal sarcasm and the interrogative mood — You are the king of the Jews? Jesus, quick on his feet, takes hold of the words but passes over the attitude: “So you say,” he ripostes. “Hail, king of the Jews!” the Roman soldiers shout as they flog and mock him a short while later, declaring unawares the astonishing truth that to the Christian hearer of the gospel is as loud and clear as church bells in an otherwise silent night.
Most mysterious to the modern reader who is likely to assume that the power of a word resides in its reception, not its utterance, is Isaac’s horror at the news that his son Jacob has just cheated Esau out of the paternal blessing. You or I would have said, “Oh, that’s not fair. Come over here, my firstborn, so I can say it over again and this time do it right.” No. Instead, Isaac trembles, understanding that the deed has been done: “Your brother came deceitfully and got your blessing,” he says to Esau. That’s it. There’s no reversing it.
And so the instinct of the average Joe who just wants to get through “the holidays” without offending anyone is more correct than he knows. At the name “Jesus,” every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and insofar as the personal title “Christ” is a sort of vestibule to the Holy Name, Joe does well not to rush in there.
Recall that devout Jews kept a respectful distance from the Holy of Holies and that Gentiles respectful of Judaism kept a respectful distance from the Temple’s inner courts. Devout Jews to this day preserve the Tetragrammaton from contact with hand or mouth — and hence their references to “Adonai” (Lord), a hedge against the Ineffable, and “HaShem” (the Name), a hedge against the hedge. Recall also that the first of the seven petitions that Jesus formulated in the prayer that he taught his disciples, including us, is that the name of “our Father” be “hallowed.” Christians translate the Tetragrammaton as “Kyrios” (Greek), “Dominus” (Latin), “Lord” (English, with small caps in the King James Version), and the equivalents in other languages.
“Throw not your pearls before swine,” the Lord teaches, meaning, among other things, “Be grateful wherever the character string ‘C h r i s t — ’ isn’t flashing next to underwear ads on Jumobtrons in Times Square.” Then redouble your gratitude if the word “holidays” enables us to smuggle into secular consumer culture a hint of anything like the transcendent. Most people now think of holidays as primarily days on which they don’t have to work, but even that much takes us halfway to the principle of the Sabbath, the very prototype of the holiday, or holy day.
#related#Next, be grateful for the plural in “Happy holidays,” because people need to be reminded, or informed, that Christmas is a whole season, of which the Feast of the Nativity is not the end but the beginning. It extends to the Octave, on January 1, when traditional Catholics still observe the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, but it doesn’t stop even there. On the twelfth day of Christmas, Christians observe the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Magi finally reach Bethlehem and present their gifts, a bit of metal and a couple of jars of stems and leaves — you think that’s not enough? It’s holy. It’s enough.
Learn from it. If your neighbor wishes you “Happy holidays,” he has said more than he may know. Thank him. Then marvel. The thought that counts is your own.