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.

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§ 15 Responses to Holy Days versus Christ’s Mass: the war on…nothing

  • Tim says:

    I love it =). No matter what they’re about, I enjoy reading your blogs, but this one is especially timely as my head nears critical mass with all of the “war on Christmas” nonsense that keeps getting thrown around.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Thanks, Tim. πŸ™‚ I’m about at critical mass, myself. It’s just silly. Can’t we all just enjoy our festive Decembers and leave it well enough alone?

  • Well said. I think that people take this time as an excuse to create even more division when it isn’t necessary. So, Happy Holidays! I wish you a year full of love and joy.

  • Absolutely, Amanda. One of the things I love about blogging is finding so many new friends who celebrate a whole rang of holidays this time of year. Happy Holidays, my friend!
    Hugs,
    Kathy

  • Cristine says:

    You know me, I have to be the voice of dissent. Reading your post, I am reminded of those graduate classes where we talked about the fluidity of language. Regardless of what “holiday” might mean to you as a Catholic, I think the word has been co-opted by commercial entities as a way to describe this month’s money-making activities in a way that does not offend all the potential customers who are buying this month. I find myself encouraged to finish up my holiday shopping and to buy items for my holiday parties. I’m really tired of commercial entities using the holidays as a machine for marketing to me without using the language that accurately represents what I am celebrating. To me it has more to do with the commercialization of Christmas than it does the secularization of Christmas. Christmas has become more about Santa and elves on the shelf than it has about Christ, and stores wouldn’t want to Christian language to describe this time of year because Christmas should be bereft of most of the garbage they are selling to us. Christ said that the world will hate him, and will hate Christians because they follow Him, Accordingly Christmas has become more about consuming than it is about anything spiritual. For me, I prefer to say Merry Christmas because it is a honest representation of what I celebrate, and it is a way of specifically acknowledging Christ’s birth. I don’t want an Atheist to have a nice December 25th. I want him to meditate on the purpose of all the merriment he sees around him, to be inspired by what is being done in Christ’s name during this time of year,because without Christ’s birth none of it would be possible. I am not offended by anyone who says Happy Holidays, but personally feel better when I say merry christmas because I know that my meaning with not be misinterpreted. Christ’s birth redeemed the world; secular goodwill toward men did not. It is hard enough to have the opportunity to talk about Christ the other 11 months of the year. Regarding the pagan influences on Christmas, I do find it odd that we decorate with so many winter symbols when that has no significance to the nativity. But the date for Christmas also is set in December because old (albeit dubious) church tradition dictates that Christ was conceived around Eastertime. So there is more to it than just borrowing a pagan holy day and repurposing it. I think every family has to decide for themselves what secularizations of Christmas they are willing to accept. Some families accept less or more than others. For me, I am hoping that if God blesses us with a family, we will enjoy a happy balance. I do wonder whether or not Santa is a good idea. It kinda icks me out. What is your perspective on Santa?

    • Mrs. H. says:

      For our family, Robert and I plan to give our children Santa Claus. We were both raised with the magic of Santa to make our Christmases even more special, and we both feel that our children will have plenty of time as adults to be jaded and critical of the holidays. We don’t think it’s such a bad idea to give them a little magic while they’re young enough to enjoy it. πŸ™‚

      In my family, Santa was incorporated beautifully with our religious traditions. My mom always baked a birthday cake for baby Jesus (yellow cake with chocolate frosting–my very favorite, even in its simplicity), we would sing Happy Birthday and blow out Jesus’ birthday candles on his behalf. She would always explain that we celebrate Jesus’ birthday the same we celebrate our own birthdays, once a year with a big party and lots of presents. But she said that Jesus was a very special person who didn’t want to receive presents himself, so he gave us presents. She would explain that the greatest gift was the sacrifice of himself for us, but when we were very young and didn’t understand a symbolic “gift,” she told us that Jesus is so generous that he wants all the little children of the world to open birthday presents instead of him opening them. Santa, St. Nicholas, was the man who helped Jesus get the birthday presents to all the little children all around the world.

      I found out the truth about Santa Claus when I was eight years old. That was fairly young for my peer group, but I was curious and I asked questions. My parents were never ones to shy away from truth-telling when we showed that we were ready for it. (That was the same year that I learned about sex, as well.) I wasn’t disturbed by the transition from the magical Santa Claus to the historical Saint Nicholas. As a Catholic, saints are just a given, so I was actually even more of a Santa fan when I found out that “Santa” meant “saint”! πŸ™‚ My sister was a little more traumatized than I was, but it was because she was embarrassed that she had bought into the lie that my parents had fed her…especially since I found out the truth about Santa about three years before she had.

      As for the merchandising aspect of it, Robert and I will give our children gifts on Christmas no matter what. Why not let them believe in a little magic while they still have the imagination to enjoy it? πŸ™‚ I’m not one to tell other parents what they should or should not do with their holiday celebration–if Santa is icky to you, then perhaps you shouldn’t incorporate the concept in your children’s Christmases. For my part, it works. πŸ™‚

  • Cristine says:

    Oh and sorry for the terrible typos, I’m typing on an idevice and this interface doesn’t allow you to cut, paste, or move the cursor!

  • V. Dub says:

    Another example of “it’s all about perspective”! I have wanted to write a post on this very topic, and it’s nice to see someone see it the way I do. Why should I be offended if someone wishes me “happy holidays”? I’m happy to receive a positive sentiment from anyone during the holiday season. Great post.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      I’m with you, Vik. I’m just so grateful that another human being is making the effort to connect with me (if even briefly)–telling me “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” or “Happy Hanukkah” or “Be Well” are all good enough for my tastes! πŸ™‚

  • What an interesting post! I love how you broke down the words themselves behind the holiday season and shared your thoughts on them. (And I just noticed, too, the timeline for baby Hab’s arrival!) So excited for you and Robert!

  • Moka B. says:

    Well put, honey! I agree. You may have noticed, I’m back on the blogging scene! Ha ha.

  • Tori Nelson says:

    I’m going to play it safe here and say HAPPY FRIDAY!!!
    P.S. Hope you are feeling fantastic, mama. Are you getting so excited to meet Mini Hab?

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