It's not so often that I weigh in with an explicit commentary on politics and current events, and there's a reason for that. But since very early yesterday morning, as I drove through the mid-Ohio sunrise, I've been thinking about something I saw outside one of the area churches that often has interesting signage. This particular church is somewhere in Licking County, just over halfway to Columbus from Gambier. In keeping with the holiday season (I probably passed twenty people with freshly cut Christmas trees bagged and bundled on top of their vehicles yesterday; they were awfully reminiscent of big game kills, for the first time in my life), this church has posted a new message, which I didn't have time to photograph for you. "STILL MERRY CHRISTMAS," the sign proclaims. "NOT HAPPY HOLIDAYS."
The "War on Christmas" nonsense bothered me so much last year, even though I have taken steps to insulate myself from the obstructions and noise that television and talk radio represent in my consciousness. I get my news and my commentary almost exclusively from the internet, which allows me to take it in on my own time and to keep it out most of the rest of the time. (I am growing more and more strident in this regard.)
Here's why I was (and still am) bothered; you will be unsurprised to know that it's based in etymology. To say "Happy Holidays" in a secular country is not to deny that this time of year is rich with religious practice, sacred tradition, and deeply held personal beliefs. The moment you let "holidays" out of your mouth at this time of year, you're invoking a long linguistic history--one that does dip into the secular, to be sure (in the sense that "holidays" are not just religious in nature but can be cultural or political as well--witness "bank holidays" in the UK, for instance, or our own series of national holidays) but that is rooted, literally, in the sacred. "Holiday" comes into English back before the last millennium, and it comes in by way of haligdæg, a compound of halig and dæg, the Old English words for "holy" and "day." Halig, in turn, derives from hal, for "whole." The idea that "holiness" relates to "wholeness" is a provocative one, to my mind, and it speaks to my own faith commitments that I believe so fully that this etymological linking is itself a reason that "Happy Holidays" is a significant greeting this time of year.
To denigrate "Happy Holidays" by caricaturing it as a denigration of a Christian holiday is to deny a human wholeness that manifests itself at this point each winter, as a plethora of religious traditions and festivals converge on the calendar. (It's also to miss the point that using the word "holiday" is already going to marginalize atheists--something I'm still trying to work out in my attempts to be linguistically sensitive and careful, something I care about not out of a need for some [caricaturish] idea of "political correctness," perhaps my least favorite of the vacuous concepts that have debuted in my lifetime, but out of a deeply held belief that no human being can know, with certainty [much less belligerent certainty], the right way to approach the divine--or even the way to know whether there is a divine. We do and know the best we can. If we're not hurting other people in our attempts to do and know the best we can, who has a right to judge?)
In short, I'm suggesting that to reassert "Merry Christmas" as the thing most needful to be said to anyone and everyone this time of year is to refuse, fairly ungenerously, to admit that any other sacred practice happening this time of year--lighting the menorah, say, or celebrating Eid ul Adha with a special feast--could be culturally significant enough to acknowledge. I refuse that refusal. "Happy Holidays" is the best I can do toward an omnibus recognition at this time of year: when I say it, I'm trying to say "Merry Christmas," "Happy Hanukkah," "Eid Mubarak," and all the other greetings I don't know, in all the other languages I don't know. I refuse to assume that I know the traditions and beliefs to which those around me cleave. I refuse to assume that I should have any say in those traditions and beliefs--even the implicit, apparently innocuous say involved in wishing someone the happiness of a holiday that s/he does not celebrate. But what I'm also trying to say, somehow, is that all days should be holy, in the sense of being venerated and significant and whole, whoever we are. We're all in the dark time of the year together (at least here in the northern hemisphere). We don't need to do a single thing to make the world and its goings on any darker than they already are. Why not affirm as expansively as we can? Why not use these confluences to think and believe as generously as possible?
I'm thinking about these things today not least because it's Human Rights Day, the 58th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I believe that this, too, should be one of our holidays, one of our pauses to think about something bigger than ourselves, some greater whole to which we ought generously to acknowledge our belonging.
And so it is that I'm saying to all of you, my dear ones and my unknowns: happy holidays, and peace to all of you.
(Oh, and here's my totally frivolous postscript: it's entirely possible that someone reading today will be this site's 9000th officially logged visitor.)