This is the time of year when I typically draw attention to my short, unpublished, essay about the legal and cultural complications of Christmas. It's available here.
The piece speaks for itself. But I do have a few more thoughts in the light of the most recent kerfuffles about the so-called "War on Christmas" and Donald Trump's belligerent crusade on behalf of "Merry Christmas." It's tempting to dismiss the whole business as just a load of silliness. There is no "War on Christmas." And like most folks, I am quite indifferent this time of year to how I am greeted, or whether I am greeted, by casual strangers. That said, though....,
(1) My point in the original essay was not to deny or minimize the "secular" side of Christmas, either culturally or historically, but rather to emphasize that the "religious" and "secular" dimensions of the holiday are not easily separated or compartmentalized. They are intermeshed. And they are also, and have long been, engaged in a complex dance that often verges into active competition.
(2) We should therefore be sympathetic to the plea of many Christians to "keep Christ in Christmas," not because there ever was a pure Golden Age of Christmas, but because the present era seems particularly intent on appropriating Christmas for un-Christmasy ends.
(3) Trump's campaign, however, along with much of the nonsense about the alleged "War on Christmas," has nothing to do with "keeping Christ in Christmas." It is just another instance of the worst of identity politics -- a demand for symbolic affirmation and an exercise in self-gratification.
(4) In fact, it's worse than that. I've said that the "religious" and "secular" dimensions of Christmas are intermeshed. But the "secular" side itself has two distinct elements -- one emphasizing humility, goodwill, peace, and hearth, and the other emphasizing bluster, glitz, and public spectacle. The trick, which much of the best of what we call the "commercialized Christmas" actually strives for, is to keep those elements in creative tension or equipoise. But Trumps's Christmas is just an extension of Trump himself -- narcissistic and aggressive. So sad.
(5) Nevertheless, folks on the cultural or political left should not feel too smug about their own embrace of "Happy Holidays," "Holiday Season," or the like. Culturally-laden language, of whatever sort, is inevitably fraught and complex.
"Merry Christmas" itself might have any of the following meanings, or more:
(a) "Blessed birthday of Jesus."
(b) "Merry secular Christmas."
(c) "Merry complicated Christmas."
(d) "I'm celebrating Christmas, no imposition intended on you."
or (e) Ahem, "Happy Holidays."
More to the point, terms such as "Happy Holidays" can mean any of the following, or more:
(a) Genuine and well-informed gestures toward religious and cultural pluralism. But this is both more rare and more difficult than we might think. For example, by now my significant holiday this time of year -- Hanukkah -- is over. Finished. In the past. And there is no such thing as a "Hanukkah season." So anyone saying "Happy Holidays" right now and intending to include Hanukkah should think twice.
(b) Well-meaning but naive or ill-informed gestures toward religious and cultural pluralism.
(c) A reference to an ill-defined "holiday season" with Christmas at its heart.
(d) A more specific reference to the period between Christmas and New Years Day.
(e) Just a synonym for, ahem, "Merry Christmas." This seems to be a regional thing, at least in part. See here.
(f) A euphemism for "Merry Christmas." The difference between a synonym and a euphemism is that euphemisms make a pretense of being what they are not. And euphemisms, though sometimes useful or even vital, should not be source of excessive self-congratulation.
So what's the solution? If my little essay is to be believed, there is none. Christmas presents intractable dilemmas, both legal and cultural. And we shouldn't pretend otherwise.
But that's OK.
So, in this season of darkness giving way to light, I wish all who celebrate a Merry Christmas and all who do not a fine day and a Happy New Year.