Happy Holidays?

December can often be stressful — there can be relatives to visit, food to make, gifts to buy for everyone from your son’s girlfriend to your impossibly fashionable 18-year-old niece, all piled on top of your regular workload and set to an endless Michael Bublé soundtrack. And then there’s the smaller but ever-present stressor: Do you stick with the traditional salutation or the more politically correct “Happy Holidays”?

The right-wing in Europe has had a field day excoriating European Commissioner Helena Dalli and her staff about an internal document which suggested new guidelines for the communication of EU institutions. The EPP and our very own Jason Azzopardi, orchestrated by none other than Simon Busuttil and supported by that great friend of Malta Antonio Tajani, wore their best Christian attire and demanded Ms Dalli’s head. ‘There’s no way you are going to cancel Christmas,’ they said.

No matter that the document said no such thing. It was immaterial that the document was not a proposed regulation or directive of the EU, that there was absolutely no truth in the local hullabaloo that people wouldn’t be able to say “Happy Christmas” to family and friends anymore. 

It is funny how thousands of people who express Unchristian bigotry and hatred at all times on fb and elsewhere; how people who egg on a poor tormented soul to jump down to his death; how people who clamour for denial of boat people’s right to demand asylum; how people who have stopped going to church altogether because they have to wear a mask, not to mention the thousands of Maltese who swear obscene words about God and Mary, were up in arms just because they thought they wouldn’t use the traditional Christmas greeting once a year. At least one lady I know says she passionately hates Christmas because she thinks the celebrations are fake. But she too got worked up no end by Ms Dalli.

It’s funny how thousands of people who express Unchristian bigotry and hatred at all times were up in arms just because they thought they wouldn’t use the traditional Christmas greeting once a year.

The only thing I could conclude from all the hot air was that Azzopardi, Busuttil and merry company thought that they could stave an almighty beating at the polls by riding on the bandwagon of “Merry Christmas”. It reminded me of Tonio Fenech’s desperate attempt to stave off the introduction of divorce in Malta by making a public appearance at a procession behind the Virgin Mary. It is rather stressful that God, Mary and the saints do not seem to be exercised enough by human perceptions of what Christianity is.

But seriously, I think the controversy deserves a more thoughtful analysis ─ something you would never find on fb. Normally, when we greet or part from people, we rely on what linguists call phatic speech. These are expressions that, as socio-linguist Peter Trudgill puts it, “establish and maintain good social relations, without necessarily communicating any information”. “Merry Christmas” was one such phatic expression, an unremarkable December alternative to “See you later!” or “Have a good day!”

Today, however, the practice of using “Merry Christmas” is fraught by issues of ideology, age, geography and gender. At this point both “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” make little sense. Their primary function now is to characterise the speakers as belonging to particular groups. “Merry Christmas” advertises that more likely than not you are a conservative and comfortable with Christianity as the default. “Happy Holidays” conveniently ignores the fact that, of the world’s major religions, only two or so have important celebrations in December, and thus often indicates, “I am a liberal and try hard to be inclusive, but I still want to wish you a Merry Christmas.”

Happy Holidays often indicates, “I am a liberal and try hard to be inclusive, but I still want to wish you a Merry Christmas.”

Though happy and merry are synonyms, they actually have different connotations. Merry implies a degree of revelry that is missing from happy, which tends more toward quiet contentment. When you make merry, you’re doing a lot of drinking, dancing, eating rich food and playing games. “I am happy” means you are pleased; “I am merry” means you are drunk.

Christmas was originally very merry indeed — in the Middle Ages and Renaissance it was a 12-day festival of feasting, singing and other entertainment, like games where you kiss other people’s spouses. The first carols ever printed, from 1521, reflect this attitude, rather than Christ’s birth. After a period when the religious element became dominant and the Christmas crib and card were the prevalent mode of communicating the happiness of the event, now we are back to the merry format.  

Just wait for the greeting cards you will receive this year in the mail or electronically on fb. Most of them will have nice images of mittens, ice skates and snow-covered landscapes (not to mention photos of cute kids), but not much overtly Christmassy. They will offer you everything jolly and merry, except a merry Christmas. Of course, the cherry on the cake will be that many of those who expressed outrage at Ms Dalli will probably sign off their messages with something along the lines of ─ happy holidays, peace, warm wishes for the New Year, and my least favourite, “season’s greetings”.

I have a few Muslim friends who send me electronic cards and write Merry Christmas on my Facebook wall. Is this because they become apostate for a day?  Of course not. It just shows that people say the words regardless of whether or not they celebrate Christmas.

The debate generated by the Commission document isn’t just about words: it’s about being politically correct and inclusive of diverse beliefs and traditions in its communications. In replying to the criticism, the Commission said, “We do not prohibit or discourage the use of the word Christmas, of course. Celebrating Christmas and using Christian names and symbols are part of the rich European heritage.” The Commission is neutral on religious issues and has constant dialogue with all religious and non-confessional organisations.  

This is about being politically correct and inclusive of diverse beliefs and traditions.

The fact is that Christmas is no longer considered to be just a Christian holiday by everyone. Christmas trees are enjoyed by many families, not just those who actively attend church. Stockings, presents, and Santa are concepts that everyone can enjoy. The traditional Christian Christmas, celebrated as the recognised day of Jesus’ birth, has been altered by many to a day filled with family, friends, food, and gifts.

The saying Happy Holidays includes all religions and cultures in its sentiment. It spreads good tidings to those who celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, Eid Mubarak or any other holiday. Happy Holidays also includes New Year’s Day. This sentiment works both for people who celebrate for religious purposes and those who just enjoy the season for its own sake.

On the other side of this are the churches who feel that taking the wording of Christmas, and therefore Christ, out of the holidays is wrong. They think they are being asked to set aside the religious aspects of the holiday season, that their own religion is not being tolerated. The term “Christmas” may still have a strongly religious connotation for some people, despite what years of Santa and the “buy buy buy” mentality have done to the spirit of holiday. That’s only further reinforced by conservative claims that there is a “war on Christmas” and, by extension, a war on the Christian faith.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays are meant to spread good cheer, little more. They are not means of converting non-Christians, or denouncing Christ as the reason behind Christmas. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays are simple greetings between friends, acquaintances, and strangers during a season where almost everyone is just a little merrier.

Ms Dalli and the Commission are not intent on deleting our history and identity,  cancelling culture, or demolishing symbols of history. They wanted to emphasise due respect to tolerance and dialogue. Not a bad idea in itself, given that only 54% of Europeans are of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant faiths, whereas 26% say they do not belong to any religion, 2% are Muslim, 0.6% Buddhist and about one million belong to the Jewish faith.

So, rather than waste time on useless controversies, let us wish each other Happy Christmas, Happy Holidays or whatever, and for once live the true spirit of the words rather than the form.

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