It sometimes seems that the debate over “happy holidays” and “merry Christmas” has grown inexorably stale and petty, considering the childish defensiveness of many on both sides of this quirky little social discussion. This is especially true for those of us who view it as killing the fun, who wish to enjoy the rituals and festivities themselves rather than debate theology, the church, or the religious foundation of a given holiday. But perhaps this conflict over phrasing represents a significant change in attitudes about the meaning and function of Christmas, as well as those holidays which occur during the same “season”.

Religious fundamentalism seems to be a leading—but certainly not the sole—exponent of preserving “merry/happy Christmas”. Columnist David Rosman gives an atheist’s perspective in The Missourian, relating it to the controversy over the election in Asheville, NC, of an atheist city councilor, Cecil Bothwell, which we have already discussed in a previous blog below. Rosman points out the efforts of former Asheville NAACP President H.K. Edgerton to unseat Bothwell because of his atheism, using a proscription in the North Carolina state constitution against atheists in office. (This stipulation, Rosman notes, is trumped by the U.S. Constitution, which bars religious tests for obtaining office.) Should non-believers such as heathens, animists, Buddhists, etc., therefore hold no rights in North Carolina, he asks? Clearly, they do, he says, and by pointing out how these belief systems also celebrate rebirth during the winter season, he shows the validity of heathen beliefs and their similarities with monotheism.

Rosman’s argument forces us to consider a broader, more syncretic definition of the winter season recalling common-shared rites surrounding the shortest day of the year—winter solstice, when the days begin to grow longer—which signifies death and regeneration through the survival of light (fire) and life (the evergreen) into Spring. It seems common sense that these inspiring motifs of an ancient European paganism rooted in natural cycles and rhythms informs the much newer mass commemorating the birth of an avatar who was allegedly crucified to atone for the sins of unworthy humans, who will suffer eternal torment if they do not believe in this event. Indeed, even Candlemas was founded on the pagan Celtic festival of Imbolc, which, at the start of February, marks the halfway point to Spring by the invocation of light and its life-giving power; even more, compare the invocation of light and greenery with the similar Christian ritual of the Eucharist—both are a form of imitative magic, which seeks to realize a circumstance by mimicking it. All of us share the preoccupation with surviving the death of winter until the return of the growing season, which requires at least basic knowledge of astronomical occurrences—even atheists rely on the return of the growing season—so this basic human experience seems to justify a more general expression of goodwill.

What of the true “happy holidays” pedants, though—those who, like their “merry Christmas” counterparts, could never articulate a solid argument for the use of this “newfangled euphemism”? Certainly, if they fail to produce sufficient grounds for the use of such a generic greeting, chances are they hold a rather disingenuous and patronizing attitude towards the religious specificity of holidays like Christmas. One could argue that “happy holidays” dilutes the unique character of a date which is intended to commemorate a specific event, and that ignoring the importance of its uniqueness leads to purposelessness—after all, why commemorate a noteworthy event if it is no different from another? We all may as well have one single, nebulous holiday. Such an attitude is certainly annoying for those who are astute enough to detect the disingenuousness. It is probably a good and reverent thing too, then, to be specific when we are present at a particular religious service and it is safe to assume that those around us share particular beliefs about exactly what the day represents. Most likely, you will not incur a frown from your listener if you greet them “merry Christmas” inside a Christian church.

But all of these considerations are ultimately beside the point—to dwell on them is to grudge the season its joyous spontaneity. Peace on earth and goodwill to all living things are worthy principles for any universal church to uphold. Whatever you wish to call this time of year (I still say “merry Christmas” and subsequently provide a disclaimer if the listener looks nonplussed), perhaps we can all agree that it marks an event or period which is in some sense “magical”—even if this simply carries the scientific connotation of recognizing the amazing and mysterious workings of the universe and how it affects all of us and our planet. And hopefully we can all agree that the most important part of it is to transcend religious and ethnic differences and commune with our fellow human being in solemn ritual and warm, festive revelry.

Source: Columbia Missourian

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