The world of commerce would have us believe that Christmas begins the day after Halloween, but for those such as myself who follow a different calendar, Christmas really begins on, well, Christmas Day, December 25th. Advent, the four-week period that precedes Christmas, began this year on November 29th, and January 6th marks the start of Epiphany. That calendar, which I and so many others follow, offers a clarity and purposefulness that the commercial world's timetable often skids away from. What happens - and when and why it happens - on the calendar guides me in what greetings to say during those clearly demarcated seasons.
When I was growing up during the 1960s and 1970s, "Merry Christmas" was the standard greeting for that season, although there was the occasional utterance of "Seasons Greetings" or "Happy Holidays." It was heard and seen everywhere, and I can remember my parents even tacking on "Merry Christmas" to their usual "Hello" when answering the telephone. In stores, whether small or large, "Merry Christmas" was an expected and welcomed exchange between customers and salespersons. Concerns over whether it would be inappropriate or offensive to express or receive the greeting did not exist. Like an extra blanket on a frigid night, the cheerful greeting added another layer of comfort and jollity to a festive time while still pointing to what (and whom) the season was essentially about.
In recent years, as some have lamented, it has felt as if "Merry Christmas" and even Christmas itself have been under attack. Using the greeting in stores or other public venues was practically considered taboo, and sales help were instructed against using the greeting; signage displaying the word "Christmas" or "Merry Christmas" has been criticized or removed outright; Nativity displays have run afoul of those who feel that there should be no references to Christmas in public spaces; and on the calendar of some schools mention of Christmas no longer appears. Although it has not completely vanished, "Merry Christmas" has shrunk in usage, due in large measure to an increasingly multicultural (and less Christian) society. Sadly, this issue has become yet another battle in the ongoing culture wars in this country. To say "Merry Christmas" in such an atmosphere can feel like a transgression, a hostile action towards those who, for whatever reasons, do not observe the holiday. But to those who want to say "Merry Christmas" freely and without fear of getting disapproving looks or a sharp reprimand, but who refrain from saying it, it can feel like being silenced.
Intrepid (or perhaps just foolhardy), I decided this Christmas to step into the "Merry Christmas" breach: after making my purchase, I have said with confidence, "Merry Christmas" to the salesperson. Sometimes I got a response in kind, sometimes not. To my greater surprise, I sometimes received a hearty "Merry Christmas" from the person on the other side of cash register, and, perhaps to her surprise, I responded in kind. And, like my parents, I attach "Merry Christmas" to my "Hello" when I answer the phone. I know they would have approved.
When I buy my greeting cards, I want to see "Merry Christmas" or even "Christmas Greetings" either on the front or on the inside of that bit of card stock. "Seasons Greetings" or "Happy Holidays," chipper and upbeat though they are, misses the mark for me. They swerve away from the more full-bodied phrase I have known and still love. At the end of "The Night Before Christmas," Santa gives a robust "Merry Christmas To All!" not "Seasons Greetings!" The season is about merriment, in the complete lights-and-tinsel and fruitcake sense of the word. It's Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, and Charlie Brown with his sad, bedraggled tree. It's Tiny Tim and the repentant and reborn Scrooge. But it is also - especially - about the one whose birth is recalled and celebrated, and without whom there would be no Christmas Day. Because "Merry Christmas" evokes all that, I will say it for as many Christmases as I am given.
Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.