Taking Christ out of Christmas

When I first heard that Bill O’Reilly was blaming the secular humanists for trying to change the name of our favorite national holiday, I thought it was a bum rap. I figured he was just scapegoating us because he didn’t want to admit publicly that he was taking a swipe at Jewish Americans. So I reasoned that since I don’t have a dog in this fight, why don’t I just go around saying that I’m a secular humanist and Merry Christmas to all? This would demonstrate that at least one humanist was not at all interested in changing the name of our number one holiday. At least by implication, that might help expose O’Reilly’s scapegoating and make him look like the horse’s rear end that he is.

It didn’t work. Most of my secular humanist friends preferred Happy Holidays or some such euphemism, and if they sensed antisemitism in Big Bill’s remarks they didn’t show it. In the media, Happy Holidays proved to be pretty popular despite, or maybe even because of, the big O’s frothy denunciation. I still felt the issue was a trivial one, but its current resonance suggested that bigger issues were indirectly involved.

What about antisemitism? I saw an article in the Israeli magazine “Forward” that suggested that reactions like O’Reilly’s had antisemitic overtones. However, I saw nothing in the US media to suggest this, and I didn’t sense that any of my Jewish friends had any important stake, as Jews, in the current semantic shift towards Happy Holidays. My gut feeling is that the initiative came mostly from liberal Christians, people who have conditioned themselves for well over a generation to lean over backwards in accepting other religious and ethnic groups as full members of the society they used to dominate. This spirit of tolerance has done wonders for our country and would be entirely admirable if it were leavened by a bit more humor and sense of proportion. As it is, the liberals still take their liberal attitudes toward religious differences in our society very seriously. Too seriously, in my opinion, since a virulent allergy against old-fashioned antisemitism, admirable in itself, has segued into an uncritical assumption that everything the Government of Israel does is right and virtuous. That association is quite irrational and logically untenable, as many Israelis themselves have pointed out. And it has led us more or less directly to our present problems in the Middle East.

What about multiculturalism? Liberal Americans have united around rejection of old-fashioned antisemitism but remain somewhat divided over whether we define our country as a melting pot or a mosaic. Substitute Happy Holidays for Merry Christmas, and perhaps you strike a subliminal blow in favor of recognizing America’s diversity. Or do you? A consensus may be emerging, supported by most liberals (though by no means all of them) that recognizing ethnic diversity is fine, but we should all have a common language. At least that is where I come out. And is changing the name of Christmas a welcome recognition of ethnic diversity or is it an unwelcome assault on the integrity of the English language? If it is a bit of both, the question remains: what is the symbolic content of the word Christmas, for most Americans? Is it still charged with religious meaning? Or has the term become denatured, shorn of religious significance, like Thursday (Thor’s Day)? If the former, then the present controversy is significant, and maybe O’Reilly’s blast needs to be taken seriously. If the latter, O’Reilly is beating a dead horse and should be ignored.

For me, Christmas means the big winter holiday. Since I attach no religious significance to it, I have no problem in continuing to say Merry Christmas to all around me. In fact I prefer it to the modern alternatives since I’ve grown up using it and my tired old brain already has too many new terms I have to learn. But other people, of other faiths and other attitudes toward multiculturalism, may feel differently. Let them do what they want. Merry Christmas, everbody, and if you’d rather celebrate a Happy Holiday, that’s your business. Like I said at the outset, I really don’t have a dog in this fight.

Carl Coon 12/26/05

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