War on Holidays

Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas unless someone said something inflammatory. Rather than waiting for Uncle Hubert to bring up the tax plans or Cousin Elmer to launch into his annual tirade of racism, I decided to jump the gun and be the first to offend you this season.

Many Christians, American evangelicals in particular, take time every year to decry the so-called “war on Christmas.” As proof of this war, they cite two perennial battles: “X-mas” replacing “Christmas” and the ubiquitous “Happy Holidays” replacing “Merry Christmas.” I’d like to address each in turn, moving from hard fact into my own thoughts, as it were.

First, the hard facts: “X-mas.” Many well-meaning Christians see the term as nothing more than the blatant removal of the name “Christ” from his own Mass, so to speak. An X, it’s said, could stand for anything at all — or even for nothing at all. The problem, however, is that the character in question isn’t a Latin X, but a Greek chi, which just happens to have the same shape. The chi is the first letter in “Christos,” Χριστος, the word glossed as “Christ” in the pages of the New Testament. The single letter X was often used as an abbreviation for “Christ” in early Greek church literature, much the same way you might sign your own name with just a single initial. Indeed “IX”, meaning “Ιησους Χριστος” (“Iesous Christos,” “Jesus Christ”), or even “XC” (the first and last letters of “Christos” in capitals) are prevalent shorthand in the original biblical manuscripts. “X-mas” isn’t taking Christ out of anything; it’s just saving ink and paper in a very, very old way. A biblical way, even, that was later adopted in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance by English speakers. This battle in the war on Christmas only arose because Christians don’t know their own history — and that’s the fault of the Church, not the secular culture. Don’t hate; educate.

If the “X-mas” battle is waged out of ignorance (and I do mean ignorance, not stupidity, so don’t conflate the two), then the “happy holidays” battle is born of arrogance. A look at any calendar will reveal a significant list of holidays, religious and otherwise, during the month of December. Obviously not everyone celebrates the same one. “But we have the right one,” Christians say, “the original.” Well, yes and no. As far as it relates to purely Christian faith (and one disconnected from its Jewish origins), yes, Christmas is our one and only December holiday. But it certainly isn’t the original winter celebration for all peoples. Pagan yule festivals, celebrations of the winter solstice, and even the Jewish Hanukkah all pre-date Christmas by several hundred years. In fact, the first recorded celebrations of Christmas in December date to around 336 — over 300 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, despite those two events being celebrated since they first occurred. Moreover, Jesus was most likely born in spring or early summer. And you have to take into account the fact the gifts of the magi weren’t presented until Epiphany, or Old Christmas, observed on January 6 (which is why all my beloved nativity sets are wrong). Of course, after Christmas was first celebrated, other holidays were created. Kwanzaa, originating in 1966, is perhaps the newest of these and one of the only ones ethnic and not religious in origin. In any event, Christmas doesn’t win by virtue of age.

Thus we see there are many holidays, old and new, being observed in the final month of the year. We could spend a lifetime deciding what each individual celebrates and whether to wish them “happy Hanukkah,” “joyous Kwanzaa,” “merry Christmas” . . . you get the idea. Instead the all-encompassing “happy holidays” now suffices. Unless, of course, you believe in this particular battle in the “war on Christmas.”

Again, with this knowledge in mind, to assume this battle exists is arrogant. It presupposes we alone have the only holiday which ought to be observed and demands everyone else recognize our religion in the public sphere, whether they adhere to it or not. (“Merry Christmas” is an intrinsically religious, explicitly Christian statement, is it not?) Yet we as Christians would be horribly offended, outraged, even, if Jews required us to wish them a blessed Hanukkah or if our culture suddenly issued a “Joyous Kwanzaa!” mandate. We would be so offended, in fact, we would welcome “Happy holidays!” because we would realize our holiday was included in the expression instead of being omitted by default. Instead of viewing the phrase as inclusive of others as well as ourselves, however, we pridefully demand our day — and only our day — become the center of the December universe. Hubris at its finest. (And a far cry from the humility of a God born in a feed trough.)

Lest anyone find me anti-Christian or, worse, anti-Christmas, let me temper any perceived vitriol in my previous words. I do personally believe Christmas to be the “correct” winter holiday, and I wish everyone would celebrate it. I prefer to be wished a “Merry Christmas!” as that is the holiday I will observe. And yes, I understand the impulse to “correct” people as a way of evangelism — but it’s a terrible method. You don’t want to tell someone to enjoy their “pagan” holiday; very well. But you will never make them love Jesus by snidely sneering, “Merry Christmas” to everyone wishing you “happy holidays.” It’s not truth spoken in love; it’s pedantry spoken in defense.

This year I issue you a challenge. The next time someone bids you “happy holidays” and you find you can’t let it go, strike up a genuine conversation with them. A polite one. Ask them what they’re celebrating and wish them well in it. Let them know about Christmas and what it truly represents if they open the door to it, but don’t try to shove a creche down their throats. Regardless please understand Christmas is one of the holidays included in the phrase. It’s not an attack; it’s a good-nature well-wishing designed to bless people whose other holidays are as dear and precious to them as Christmas is to you.

You can even go a step further: learn about those other days. That way you’ll know what you’re talking about when you engage in dialogue. Learn about Christmas, too. Understand “X-mas,” Christian history, and the variety of Christmas customs surrounding our holy day.

To my readers of all stripes: happy holidays. (And to my Christian readers: a blessed Advent — after all, it’s not Christmas yet.)