Holy Days versus Christ’s Mass: the war on…nothing
December 22, 2011 § 15 Comments
“Season’s Greetings” reads one card from my Catholic aunt. “Happy Howlidays!” proclaims an adorable card with a photo of a friend’s dog. “Christmas Blessings” offers the card from my church where I am a registered parishioner.
Previous years’ ultra-conservative polemic declaring a supposed “War on Christmas” has bothered me. This year? It seems downright silly.
Y’all, I’m a born and bred Roman Catholic. I believe in the transubstantiation of the Host. I whisper prayers to the Virgin Mary, Christ’s mother, when I feel the least like I’ll be able to handle motherhood myself. I cross myself whenever invited to pray, no matter if I’m the only one doing it. I put out an elaborate Nativity scene every Christmas, along with an Advent wreath.
I know the “reason for the season,” in spite of the irony that Christ was probably born in June or July. As an educated woman, I’m also fully aware of the ways in which early Christianity subsumed pagan rituals, deities, and feast days in order to encourage the enrollment of new members. (I’m especially looking at you, Easter.) To me, it matters less that December 25th is not Christ’s real birthday; the symbolism of the observance matters much more.
One would think that in 2011, we could get over and past preferential salutations throughout the month of December and just be grateful that people are even extending them in the first place. Most people who wish others a “Merry Christmas” or a “Happy Holidays” genuinely wish the other person happiness. And that, my friends, is a miracle in and of itself. Throughout the rest of the year, we tend to treat strangers and acquaintances with little or no concern whatsoever for their well-being. December seems to be the month when we are socially programmed to pull our heads out of our own asses and notice others. And I am perfectly fine with it. Call it what you want, but thanks just the same for noticing me.
As an English major, I’ve spent a great deal of time playing with words. (This does not suggest that only people who study English think about etymology…lots of people have linguistic interests.) And I think I finally put my finger on why this year of all years the “War on Christmas” polemic has irked me so.
“Christmas” is a compound word. It means “Christ’s Mass.” It refers to the specific day of the calendar year where we celebrate Christ’s Mass. (There is also a Michaelmas [pronounced “mickle-mas”], which is “Michael’s Mass,” traditionally observed on September 29th in order to celebrate the archangel Michael.) Christ’s Mass simply means “the day we specifically celebrate and call to mind the day of Christ’s nativity.” That’s all. It’s a Holy Day of Obligation.
“Holiday” is also a compound word. It means “Holy Day.” It refers to a specific day or run of days (when plural) when believers of any religion observe in any myriad of rituals and traditions a previously dedicated day of observation. In the month of December, Christians (whether or not they observe it themselves) have a wonderful holiday known as Advent. Advent traditionally runs four Sundays prior to Christ’s Mass. This year, because Christ’s Mass is on a Sunday, Advent has gone from Sunday, December 4th to Sunday, December 25th. During this time period, observers prepare their hearts (and, especially in modern times, their homes and December budgets) for the celebration of Christ’s Mass, which takes precedence over all the other Holy Days throughout Advent. But the arrival of Christ’s Mass does not conclude our Holy Day season. Many Christians, Roman Catholics included, continue to observe additional Holy Days throughout the end of December and extending into the beginning of January, until the observance of the Epiphany (traditionally on January 6th) which commemorates several key moments in the beginning of Christ’s life, including his baptism as well as the visitation of the Wise Men. For my own part, I take on my mother’s tradition of leaving up my Christmas tree and household decor until January 6th. I dismantle them on January 7th.
Roman Catholics and other Christians actually seem to have more Holy Days in their calendar year than not. The end of the Epiphany flows smoothly into the beginning of Lent in most years (although there is a period of “Ordinary Time” between the Epiphany and Ash Wednesday), and after the Pentecost yet prior to the first Sunday of Advent the Church is in “Ordinary Time.” This term doesn’t suggest that there are no holy days of obligation or observance, but that those dates don’t fall under the category of Advent, Christ’s Mass, Lent, or Pentecost. Indeed, there are Holy Days throughout the entire calendar year, but many modern Christians tend to forget them entirely.
I believe that wishing someone “Happy Holidays” covers well-wishes for the entire Holy Day season. If I tell a store clerk (as I did last night, for instance), “Happy Holidays,” what I am really saying is, “Happy Advent, Christ’s Mass, and Epiphany.” If they take that to mean, “Happy Hanukkah” or “Blessings this Solstice” or whatever, I really don’t care. So many of the world’s religions have holy days that fall during this time of year (could it possibly be because of the barrenness of winter? the agricultural need to plea to a deity for survival through this unyielding time?). It does not matter to me what the person I am speaking to celebrates.
And even (heaven forbid) if I am speaking to an atheist (please take note of the sarcasm), does that mean that I shouldn’t wish them a happy holiday season? Of course not. Although this person does not have a pre-determined dogmatic Holy Day to observe, this atheist might at least hear “I wish you and yours all the very best” in my “Happy Holidays.” At least, I truly hope they do.
Here’s my point. When someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, I take them literally. They literally want me to have a happy celebration on December 25th (possibly on December 24th, as well). When someone wishes me a happy holiday, I take them literally. For me and my church, there are many Holy Days throughout this month, and I enjoy the implication of each one of them.
It is my belief that politics should have a minimal place in the observance and celebration of Holy Days. I do not believe there is a “War on Christmas.” That is polemical propaganda generated within a machine that was designed to divide. I do believe there is a common blindness to the etymological importance of the words “Holiday” and “Christmas,” and I would strongly encourage those who are opposed to the rhetorical fallacy of the “War on Christmas” polemic to fight against it by wishing people “Happy Holidays.” There are many Holy Days worth celebrating this season. We should be grateful that we have life enough in our limbs to acknowledge them.