It has now become part of the annual ritual to hear Christians express their frustration when they hear someone say, “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” It has become the new “ground zero,” in the larger battle over the role of Christianity in western culture. Every purchase in a store becomes a new test, and we end up frustrated and even angry. So, when we are at the mall and we purchase some clothing and the cashier says, “Happy Holidays” we are told to take this as a defiant insult to the faith and to all that we hold dear as Christians. The phrase, “Happy Holidays” is being heard as “I am not a religious person and I don’t care five cents about Jesus Christ—and I wish all you Christians would just go away.” But, perhaps there is another way to look at this.
From my perspective, I do not expect unbelievers to be merry about the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. In fact, I would rather not have the celebration of the incarnation so closely identified with all the secular trappings of this season of the year which have little to nothing to do with the birth of Jesus Christ. The incarnation of Jesus Christ is not to be confused with purchasing a new Minecraft video game, or a Ralph Lauren silk tie. Actually, we should be the ones who want to distance ourselves from all of that. We could turn the tables on the whole conversation and say, “wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get all of the non-Christians to stop saying Merry Christmas, and start saying Happy Holidays?” This would more clearly delineate those who see this as merely a holiday time to eat and receive presents, and those who are seeking to remember and celebrate the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. The more sacred statement, “Merry Christmas” would be reserved for practicing Christians who want to keep the holy-day. Every time I hear “Happy Holidays,” I hear it as yet another quiet Christian victory as, step by step, cashier by cashier, attendant by attendant, we get our own phrase back.
Don’t forget that the reason the early church chose December 25th to be the day the church celebrated the birth of Jesus was because it was already a holiday celebrating Mithra, a Persian or Zoroastrian god associated with cattle and harvest. This was the time when Christians were being persecuted and they could not worship openly or freely. Thus, they essentially smuggled the Christian celebration onto a day when people were already not working, and celebrating Mirtha instead. In short, Christmas was originally a “stealth” holy day which was lived out underneath the larger overlay of a pagan holiday. Does this sound increasingly familiar?
We are not entering into a new situation. That’s the amazing thing about living in a post-Christendom world. It starts looking a lot like a pre-Christendom world. We must start taking our cues from the early church—especially the first three centuries—rather than the Burl Ives Christmas of 1950’s America. So, let the wider culture drone on about Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, Jack Frost, the North Pole, and Chestnuts roasting on the open fire. Indeed, “Happy Holidays” to you. But, underneath all the secular fog, we will be remembering the glorious incarnation, the Word made Flesh, the divine invasion of the planet, the beginning of the great reversal, the redemption of the world. Merry Christmas!