A Battle of Locution: Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas

Yesterday, Cory Lewandowski went on Hannity to proclaim Donald Trump’s victory in the so-called ‘war on Christmas.’

“You can say again, ‘Merry Christmas,’ because Donald Trump is now the president. You can say it again, it’s OK to say, it’s not a pejorative word anymore.”

The Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas conundrum has been a campaign talking point for Trump since last summer. He publicly spoke out against Obama renaming the White House Christmas tree to a ‘holiday tree’ and (falsely) claimed Obama was refusing to say Christmas.

This controversial ‘holiday tree’ move by Obama actually makes sense from a traditional conservative view. How many conservatives would be angered at taxpayer money funding a celebration of a non-Christian holiday? In a secular sense, the separation of church and state is an ideological cornerstone. Christian morals historically inform government action but, ultimately, the government is not a Christian body. It cannot be treated like a church and it should not be expected to act like one.

Christmas Day, one might argue, is a federal holiday; shouldn’t that ensure the Christmas-y nature of the celebration—even within the government?

Not quite. Christmas was established, and remains, a federal holiday for logistical rather than religious reasons. Despite noted shifts away from Christianity in popular culture, 77% of adult Americans identify as Protestant or Catholic. Unlike Easter, another prominent Christian holiday, Christmas does not fall on a day most employees already have off. Therefore, practicality drives the government’s recognition of Christmas.

The White House ‘holiday tree’ reflects the secularization of the Christmas season we’ve experienced since the mid-20th Century. The Charlie Brown Christmas special first appeared in 1965 where Lucy notes: “Look, Charlie Brown, we all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.

The real ‘war on Christmas’ is nothing new, and it hasn’t come from the left or right. It has come from materialism among all Americans, and a loss of focus by Christians on what the season means.

In 2007, the Bishop of Honolulu, Larry Silva shared a sentiment worth noting:

“There is so much controversy these days about this simple greeting, because it seems to make Christmas little more than a secular holiday. Few would deny the holiday’s historical roots in Christianity, but there is a prevailing attitude that the holiday has “matured” into a day for believer and non-believer alike. Christ is no longer the center of the observance for many.

While it would be easy for us to rail against this contemporary bow to secularism, we might also be challenged to scrutinize our own attitudes about our faith and ask if we ourselves have not planted the seeds of the separation of Christ from Christmas.

“Merry Christmas” will only regain its meaning if we live the reality and not just the words.”

Separating Christ from Christmas is a religious and moral value we must first confront in ourselves. But as a nation we must recognize that going to ‘war’ over a linguistic distinction is what causes rifts between citizens.

This is a problem from both the left and the right. For example, some demand excessive specification of gender, race, sexuality identity, political view, and religion. Trump himself spent the entire campaign cycle precursing every form of voter identity with ‘the,’ resulting in the gays, the Hispanics, the Muslims, and the poorly educated.  While America values individual identity, this type of specification makes personal-distinctiveness more important than our comradery as Americans or our inherent brotherhood as humans.

Where I live in Eastern Iowa there is a large Catholic, Islamic, and Jewish population. All three of these religions have holidays in mid-December (Christmas on the 25th, Mild un Nabi on the 11th, and Hanukkah on the 24th). In this context, saying ‘Happy Holidays’ makes complete sense. Finding offense in Happy Holidays is effectively finding offense in being wished a Merry Christmas.

It is important to note that just as including all holidays is not, in any way, offensive, neither is wishing someone a Merry Christmas or providing any sort of well-wishing to someone for an occasion deemed by many worth rejoicing.

Just as the joy we experience at the birth of Christ is a joy for all mankind, the happiness of any of our brothers is a cause for celebration.

There is a sense of duplicity in the predominate conservative sentiment that it’s ridiculous for individuals to be insulted by ‘assuming gender identity’ while being insulted that one would assume he may not be Christian. It is only through kindness and respect that Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah, or Merry Christmas becomes a means of conversation, deepened understanding of our fellow men, or even opens a potential for conversion.

With innumerable individual identifiers, being offended every time something is incorrectly assumed is an unsustainable practice. As a relatively ethnically-ambiguous person, I would be exhausted and angry all the time if I were insulted every time someone assumed I was Hispanic or Middle Eastern.

Religion, unlike race, leaves no outward identifiers unless we chose to show them.

Perhaps the best solution to this battle of holiday locution is to take the Bishop’s advice and put more effort into an outward display of Christian faith in order to really bring Christ back into Christmas. With effort, they may know it is Christmas by the way we live.