I love Christmas—the music, the mood, the holiday celebrated by Americans in unique and individual ways different from my own. I mean, I don’t hang lights from the gutters, but I’ve seen it done well; I don’t put a crèche out front, but they can be both beautiful and powerful; I don’t perform in a Las Posadas procession or eat a 12-course dinner on Christmas Eve, but those seem like fun customs. I even like hearing the greeting spoken in other languages: Joyeux Noël!
But still, it doesn’t mean what it means to me unless I hear the American English: “Merry Christmas!” I don’t care if I hear it spoken in an unfamiliar accent, or in the voice of a descendant of the Puritans, or by a first-generation Dreamer living here since childhood. That phrasing brings on memories of holiday cheer unique to my religious background, my cultural heritage, and my family. I don’t have any problem saying it to others or having others say it to me.
However, if I experience this kind of exhilaration during the public celebration of a holy day in my tradition, those from other traditions must experience similar feelings during their own. Lots of cultures have holy days, many of them in the midst of winter. The fun one in my tradition is Christmas—especially for kids. We got to open presents while celebrating the incarnation of God. It’s a pretty big deal. But others have days that are big deals, too. How do I refer to them?
Of late, the phrase “happy holidays” has earned a reactionary response, as though it were being enforced to negate the tradition embedded in “merry Christmas.” Though I’ve read about this linguistic curiosity, I’ve never had anyone insist on my using one phrase over another. When I was a kid, we got plenty of Christmas cards that said “happy holidays” right there on the front. It was often used as a generic phrase in order to recognize a whole season of celebration, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.
The word itself is old, with roots in Old English, back when the Anglo-Saxons dominated England and Vikings raided the coast. It is a conflation of halig (holy) and daeg (day): haligdaeg. In England, it came to mean both a holy celebration and a festive day off: to experience generosity and to generously give. “Happy holidays” indicates both. If there’s a threat to the celebration of Christmas, it’s from consumer culture, not from language.
Many traditions have days on which they celebrate generosity. It seems like something Americans from a variety of backgrounds can get together on: the gift of treating others as we would want to be treated. It is a concept of justice rooted in fairness—assuming that all of humankind should be treated as we would treat ourselves, even supposing we didn’t know where we’d be born or whom we’d be born to. This year, we might celebrate by passing the DREAM Act, which has long had bipartisan support, and ensure that our students and family and friends, who are productive members of our society here through no fault of their own, can be secure in their future.
There are many ways to celebrate a haligdaeg—I hope your festivities this year are top notch. Happy Holidays to all. . . and from my tradition, Merry Christmas! It’s a big deal, and we like saying it.