Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays
A brief digression on the meanings we give words
I was there when Christmas died.
Well, technically by ‘there’ I mean ‘in school, but old enough to be paying attention to broader societal changes’.
And by ‘died’ I mean ‘it became unfashionable to wish a stranger Merry Christmas, because you didn’t know if they celebrated Christmas or not and if they didn’t it might offend them and That Would Be Bad’.
This change was far from the only one made to language and society in the name of not offending people over the past few decades. Some of said changes have been for the better, genuinely.
But I always thought this one betrayed a lack of empathy on the part of those pushing for it.
I was born and raised Jewish.
Growing up, I was wished Merry Christmas many times by many people - strangers at the checkout line, friends at school, teachers, passing people on the street.
And each time, I didn’t harbor some kind of secretive, growing resentment for those kindly well-wishers. I didn’t nurture a grudge with every cheery wave, or feed the flames of revenge over their failure to wish me a Happy Hanukkah instead.
I just said Merry Christmas back, and kept going about my day.
When someone says ‘Merry Christmas’, in America in this day and age, at least where I live, they’re not trying to impose their religious beliefs upon you.
They’re not trying to be insensitive to your own personal relationship with the holidays, or to offend you, or to belittle you or your culture in any way.
They’re just saying:
Hey. It’s the time of year that is darkest and cold, and we humans have decided to take this time to celebrate with light and warmth and cheer everything the year has given us, and to spend a few days with family and friends, in hearth and home, being as happy as we can be.
I hope this goes well for you, and that you enjoy the time you have.
Every time I was wished a Merry Christmas, I understood what the person meant. There was no need to split hairs, no need for the inoffensive but bland ‘Happy Holidays’, no need for every stranger passing by to have in-depth knowledge of my culture or political tastes in order to avoid offending me.
They could just wish me a Merry Christmas, I could reciprocate it in the spirit it was given, and we could all get on with our lives.
It was nice.
Words are given meanings by humans, but not always by design.
Sometimes words or phrases evolve over time, their meaning changing slowly as the cultures around them shift. Other changes can be less gradual, a single-generation mutation that breeds true rather than evolution’s cruel hand chipping away at a genome one failure at a time.
But in the end, words are given meanings by humans, and humans alone.
So allow me to imbue this meaning:
I hope that you’re safe, and warm, and happy. I hope that, with the winter solstice behind us, we can all enjoy the return of the sun and longer, brighter days. I hope that the season finds you well, and that you have much to look forward to in the morning. I hope the coming year proves good to you, and that you face no challenges beyond your ability to overcome them. I hope you live and learn and grow and heal and laugh and love, to the greatest extent you desire to do so.
into these words: