I love saying “Merry Christmas.” I do. Call me unfeeling. Call me insensitive. Call me politically incorrect. Go ahead.
It might be the “merry” part. We never say “merry” about anything else, have you noticed? It’s not “Merry Birthday” or “Merry Easter” or “Merry St. Patrick’s Day.” So offered this one opportunity to say “Merry” anything– and have people understand what you mean by that– seems like a truly wonderful, unmissable opportunity.
And why “merry,” one wonders? What is it about this event– this season– that merits the wishes for merriment, and not just happiness? Instead of mere happiness, we wish on one another festivity and gaiety of spirit, a mood that extends beyond happiness into the jocund. Merry commands, so Merriam-Webster tells me, cheerfulness, joyousness, and “uninhibited enjoyment of frolic and festivity.”
Uninhibited Enjoyment of Frolic and Festivity. Really, what’s not to love? Why, given that option, would we opt for anything else?
The British say “Happy Christmas,” I am told. I have no explanation for this.
Still, I’m no idiot. I’m guessing it isn’t the “merry” with which my politically correct community takes issue. It’s that whole “Christmas” part.
And I understand it. I do. Christmas is not the only holiday compacted into these closing weeks of the year. There’s the new year, for starters (no pun intended). Saying “Happy Holidays” very tidily includes best wishes for both of these holidays, spaced only one week apart.
There are others. Hannukah is in December, Kwanzaa too. And how does one know, when offering one’s seasonal salutations at the check-out register/restaurant/dry-cleaning window, whether the person to whom one is delivering said saluations celebrates one of these, or Christmas, or is adhering to an ancient runic calendar and so has no interest in popular culture’s assertion that January 1st is the beginning of anything like a new year?
It’s impossible to know.
Which makes “Happy Holidays” much more appropriate.
On the other hand, as my mother-in-law sagely observed, the fact is that “Merry Christmas” holds– for many people– a denotation of simple well-wishing. It means “all the best” and nothing more. And so, she suggested, we should just leave it alone.
But Bill (and here’s why I’m writing, why this is in my craw, don’t you know), doesn’t see it that way. And his simple assertion of this alternate perspective has definitely put the damper on my blithely delivered “Merry Christmas”es. Yes, once again, the man has got me thinking.
He points out that maybe saying “Merry Christmas” is unkind.
Who are we, as Christians, to assume that others share our holiday and also, therefore, share our merriment? What kind of grace is it to impose my Holy Day on people? What kind of sensitivity– or, if you prefer– awareness does it suggest to throw the “Merry Christmas”es around to people who very simply might not celebrate the 25th of December as such?
But the second half of his argument is even more compelling.
He wisely notes that reducing the idea of “Merry Christmas” to a simple phrase of well-wishing is belittling the holy day itself. If “Merry Christmas” is only to mean “all the best,” then “merry” is not the adjective we’re going for. Frankly, if Christmas is to be reduced to something resembling good luck, then it can’t be merry at all and must, very simply, be “Happy Christmas,” or “Good Christmas” or, even, “Good Day.”
Because what Christmas contains somewhere beneath all the wrapping paper, twinkling lights and evergreen tied onto things is cause for the greatest merriment: He came, He lived, He died, He rose. And now, even in the face of joblessness, sorrow, death, irreparable loss, we can claim what Job did: “though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:26)
If we forget– or obscure, or brush off– the wonder and horror and necessity and sacrifice and beauty of that fact, then Christmas is Nothing At All.
Rightly remembered, Christmas ought to be merry. It ought to be a time of Uninhibited Enjoyment of Frolic and Festivity. It ought to delight us– as the Christmas specials and carols suggest– all year round. And this is because it extends beyond our temporality into our Great Hope: “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.” (1 John 3:2)
Extravagant love and mercy, freely given. Our sorry selves forgiven and cleansed and adopted into His magnificent family. How to encapsulate that, one wonders, into a phrase one can toss through the window at the dry-cleaners?
How, indeed? I am at a loss.
Maybe we shouldn’t even try.
So I’m mulling this over while I do my last Christmas shoppings, while I’m toasting pecans for the pie, while I’m stretching wrapping paper around presents. And I’m thinking that, once again, I don’t get it, don’t get Him, don’t live yet in the fullness of who He is but ride– as ever?– on the edges of His ways.
I’m learning. I’m grateful. But I do want to say it here. May I, O Reader, just– at the very least– say it here, with the full understanding that what I wish for you is all the Joy that comes from Him, joy I only know in part myself but whole-heartedly believe in?
Yes. I’ll say it. I will.