Around this time of year, an occasional debate comes up about the ‘inappropriateness’ of saying either ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays.’ Here’s a funny anecdote.
A few years back I was working at a rather famous department store, before I got distracted with all this ‘academia’ nonsense.
It was the first day of Chanukah. This wasn’t unknown to people. It was on the news.
A phone call came in on our cash wrap desk and I answered it: ‘Happy Chanukah.’ This was, I admit, an unorthodox response, considering we were all told to say: ‘Happy Holidays.’ I answered the caller’s question, and all was fine. About two hours later, I received a message to see the manager of our department. It turns out a complaint was filed, and I was given a written warning. I was told that I had offended a caller with an inappropriate holiday greeting. I was reminded how to properly answer the phones, and was sent back to work.
Since then, and after all these years, I’ve come to a simple conclusion when it comes to this, dare I say, ‘nonsense.’ It is, admittedly, once again rather unorthodox.
In 1984, the United States Supreme Court announced its decision on the case of Lynch vs. Donnelly. Here’s a brief description of the case from the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law website, Oyez:
The city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, annually erected a Christmas display located in the city’s shopping district. The display included such objects as a Santa Claus house, a Christmas tree, a banner reading “Seasons Greetings,” and a nativity scene. The creche had been included in the display for over 40 years. Daniel Donnelly objected to the display and took action against Dennis Lynch, the Mayor of Pawtucket.
The lead question facing the Court’s decision is described as such:
Did the inclusion of a nativity scene in the city’s display violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?
The answer they provided is described as such:
No. In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court held that notwithstanding the religious significance of the creche, the city had not violated the Establishment Clause. The Court found that the display, viewed in the context of the holiday season, was not a purposeful or surreptitious effort to advocate a particular religious message. The Court found that the display merely depicted the historical origins of the Holiday and had “legitimate secular purposes.” The Court held that the symbols posed no danger of establishing a state church and that it was “far too late in the day to impose a crabbed reading of the [Establishment] Clause on the country.”
The key element of this case is the statement here: “legitimate secular purposes.” In essence, the court had stated that the image of the nativity scene was just as secularly innocuous as that of a Christmas Tree or Santa’s house. The sacred element of the image no lounger remained. It, and what it stood for, had become secular.
In a similar case in 2010, the court decided in favour of the placement of a latin cross on government property in the Mojave desert in California. Originally placed by members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars foundation as a memorial to those killed in battle in 1934, the cross became an issue worthy of the court’s attention as it appeared to challenge the disestablishment clause of the First Amendment. A former member of the National Park Association, Frank Buono, eventually filed suit, and the case worked its way to the Supreme Court.
The decision of the Court was very similar to that in Lynch vs. Donnelly, namely that the cross itself, as a memorial, represented a secular image.
So what does all of this have to do with ‘Merry Christmas?’
By means of an explanation, consider the fact that we, as a western society, tend to not work on Sundays, and have built our culture around a particular calendar. We take time off for Christmas and Easter, regardless of the fact that this often gets disguised by ‘winter’ and ‘spring’ breaks. Now, this does not mean that these days are not still ritually ‘sacred’ to certain individuals. It does, however, mean that they might accommodate two meanings. After all, Sundays are used for football viewings and BBQs, as well as for church-going.
In this way, then, and in taking the Supreme Court’s lead, there’s nothing seemingly wrong with saying ‘Merry Christmas’ as, like the nativity scene in Rhode Island, the cross in the Mojave, and our use of the ‘sabbath’ for secular purposes, ‘Christmas’ is no longer, or at least, no longer needs to be, sacred. It’s a holiday we can all enjoy. We can find pleasure in the twinkling lights, the trees, the markets, and even the nativity scenes, without needing to ‘believe’ in the myths that give these objects sacred meaning.
With that in mind, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!