What to Say...
“Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas?”
I’m squarely in the “Merry Christmas” camp. And it isn’t merely because of my minor rebellious politically incorrect tendencies. It is a matter of the nature of blessings.
To wish someone well in any regard is to bless them. It may not seem like that big of a deal, but that is because words today have largely been divorced from real meaning and impact. When someone sneezes, we say “bless you” or some variant without even thinking about it. But for most of human history, blessing someone was no mere polite thoughtless phrase, it was a significant event with strong spiritual effect.
It was viewed such by the recipient, as well as the giver.In less civilized times, one did not bless enemies (until Christ taught otherwise), so to bless someone was a guarantee of goodwill and security, in addition to the spiritual ramifications. And in particular, when traditional enemies blessed one another, it was received as something treasured, even, and perhaps especially when the form was in accordance with the giver’s faith. While it was special to be blessed by a foreigner in the name of your God, because it acknowledged your faith, there was in some ways a greater impact when they asked their God to bless you, someone who didn’t share their faith. It was in effect a prayer of protection.
Thus, in some ways, the prickly response some offer in response to a jolly “Merry Christmas” is actually a tacit recognition of the power of words, so there is some benefit to the awareness. However, in my opinion, it is rude to respond such, as it is a rebuff and rejection of the offered blessing and goodwill. It is saying, “your blessing isn’t good enough for me because it doesn’t conform to what I believe.”
Some would argue that it is rude on the part of the blessor not to take the recipient’s worldview into account. While on the surface this may appear to be true, I disagree. Would you bless someone in the name of a god you didn’t believe in? What if we went around saying “Zeus bless you” after someone sneezed? That serves no purpose unless the blessor actually believes in Zeus. It becomes meaningless.
This is somewhat different than wishing someone whom you know is a practicing Jew a Happy Hanukkah, because it is wishing them a joyful celebration of their holiday. It has no meaning if neither you nor the recipient are Jews because neither actually celebrates the holiday, but if a Jew wishes a non-Jew a Happy Hanukkah, it is a type of blessing from their heart, and should be received in that spirit, not with a demurral about not being Jewish, nor with affrontery for their thoughtless pushing of their religion on to you.
“Ok,” comes the rebuttal, “then in this religiously pluralistic and very secular culture, why not stick with the faith-neutral, ‘Happy Holidays?’” Simply, it isn’t faith neutral. Remember, words have meaning. “Holiday” is a corruption of “holy day.” So to wish a secular person ‘happy holidays’ is to ask them to have one or more happy holy days, of which they have none (except perhaps in some cases for Super Bowl Sunday or the like), so it should be no less offensive to them than Merry Christmas, so you might as well bless them in the name of your own faith and let them go scratch their angry spot. “Seasons’ Greetings” is no less offensive because what in the name of what seasons are you greeting someone? It certainly isn’t greeting them in the name of winter. No thank you. You are greeting (blessing) them in the name of the holiday season.
In the same vein, “good luck” is problematic, because there are a number of people of faith who don’t believe in luck, so following the “Happy Holidays” crowd’s example, someone who doesn’t believe in luck should be offending when they are wished ‘good luck,’ and in fact, some are, for the same wrong reason—a type of arrogance that says the blessing is beneath them because they do not recognize the source, however well intentioned it may be in terms of edifying the hapless blessor.
This is no mere pontification by someone wishing to have more ‘freedom’ to say “Merry Christmas” and “God bless you.” There have been several times where I have interacted with people of different faiths, and at the close of our time, they have bestowed a blessing upon me in their tradition, and each time, I have stored it away in my heart as a treasure. A blessing rightly given and rightly received is a treasure and should be treated as such by both parties, otherwise it is devoid of meaning.
So what do we do? One option is to say nothing to anyone, and no one will be offended, but the world will be a colder place (“and in the end times, the love of men will grow cold…” Matthew 24:12). Another is to give others a blessing from your heart, and mean it, and not worry about how they receive it. Christ taught about this in Matthew 10:13 in a slightly different context, but the principle, I believe, applies here as well: “And if that household is worthy, your blessing of peace will come upon it, but if not, your blessing of peace will return unto you.”
So, in closing, I say to you, “May the Lord bless you richly with a merry Christmas!”