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The political right's weird problem with "Happy Holidays"–and why they shouldn't be miffed

The political right's weird problem with "Happy Holidays"–and why they shouldn't be miffed

The right has been attacking the phrase "Happy Holidays" for years.  Here's an example–every year the Liberty Counsel has a "naughty or nice" list targeting businesses who say Merry Christmas (nice) and Happy Holidays (naughty).  Apparently, the point is, you're not supposed to shop at the naughty businesses, which seems rather Grinchy in itself.   According to Right Wing Watch, the right is already gearing up to wage the war on Christmas:

This is mostly because the phrase "Happy Holidays" seems to them a sure sign that the liberals are stripping the Christ out of Christmas when that phrase is used.  But here's something the right doesn't seem to know that makes their argument that liberals are sucking the God out of this nation at "CHRISTmastime" a pretty weak one.


Etymology is the history of the usage of words.  And the history of the usage and meaning of the word "holiday" is a pretty interesting one, because it doesn't suck God out of the phrase "Happy Holidays" at all–He's still in there:

1500s, earlier haliday (c.1200), from O.E. haligdæg "holy day; Sabbath," from halig "holy" (see holy) + dæg "day" (see day); in 14c. meaning both "religious festival" and "day of recreation."

The word means "holy."   This is something that was not lost on Foundations Sunday School:

“But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16).

Many are unfamiliar with the fact that our word “holiday” comes from an old English word whose original meaning was Holy Day. Though our secular society seeks to drain all that is holy from Christmas leaving little more than tinsel and toys, eggnog and elves, we can bring back a sense of sacredness to the holiday.

As believers, we understand that while God alone is truly holy – pure and sinless – He calls us to holy living. We approach God with reverence and awe because of His holiness. The Scriptures, the Sabbath, and days of remembrance and rejoicing are sacred because God ordained them.

We can bring a sense of sacredness to our celebration of Christmas, simply by seeking to be holy ourselves.

The call to holiness is found throughout the Bible:

• “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12).

• “May He strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all His holy ones” (1 Thessalonians 3:13).

• “But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16).

The concept of holiness also encompasses the idea of being set apart for God or consecrated to Him. How do we embark on this journey of holiness?

Treat His name, His word, and the building where believers gather with the reverence they deserve. Begin each day by taking time to speak with God and offering yourself to Him, to be used for His purposes. Mediate on God’s word. Ask God for His cleansing power in your life. Be holy these holidays and let the world be in awe of what God has done in your life.

God, You are holy. Make me like You. Amen.

The fight over whether it's more Christian to use "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" seems pretty moot when the light of knowledge is shone on the words we use, and the words we fight to claim for political purposes. And Christians themselves get in the "Happy Holidays" spirit in the church sponsored activities they indulge in.   On Christianity Today's "Her-meneutics" section last year, Michelle van Loon, a guest writer, explored the fact that Christians themselves could help convert the non-churched by thinking about how the use of "Happy Holidays" is put to practical use in their own churches:

The culture-war frontier has been littered with the debris of yearly Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas throw-downs as a noisy segment of American Christendom have elected themselves to serve as defenders of a perfect Christmas past. This year, First Baptist Church of Dallas is encouraging visitors to their Grinch Alert website to help make a list of naughty and nice merchants. The litmus test for niceness is simple: Nice merchants say “Merry Christmas.” (Tattling on retailers who don’t say the magic words on the Internet apparently counts as nice behavior as well.) Not surprisingly, this website has gotten a fair amount ofnewsattention in recent days.

I would like to suggest that we’d be doing our non-Christian friends a huge favor if we used some of our culture war weapons on ourselves during the Christmas season. Instead of savoring the delicious jolt of affirmation some of us get from the words “Merry Christmas,” what if we engage in a little self-analysis of how we celebrate the holiday within our churches?

Many congregations craft sentimental, gingerbread-scented ways of celebrating the season without giving our programming’s message much thought. “It’s all about Jesus,” we say, while filling our church calendars with 1brunches, sanctuary decorating parties, children’s cantatas, and “Secret Angel” Bible study gift exchanges.

Before you rush to enter my name on the Grinch Alert list, please hear me out. I am not saying that any of these activities are bad. What I am saying is that a lot of these events are designed to create some “Happy Holidays” fun for ourselves and our guests. Where it gets confusing is when a cookie exchange is branded with the “Real Meaning Of Christmas” religious imprint.

I grew up in a Jewish family, and my knowledge of Christmas came solely from various holiday cartoon TV specials. I dismissed the day as some red-and-green holiday celebrated by Gentiles. I came to faith in Christ in my teens, and once I was able to attend church freely as an adult, one of the first messages I got from the church was that one of the best ways to celebrate the birth of my Savior was to show up at the church’s women’s Christmas tea. It took me a good while to figure out that some of what passed for Christmas celebration in the church had more to do “Happy Holiday” culture than church leaders might have been willing to admit.

That isn’t to say that the church didn’t also present me with a heaping platter of worshipful responses to the Gift in the manger. The churches of which I’ve been a part over the years have focused on beautiful offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh-scented acts of outreach, justice, and mercy during this season. The giving has included filling the shelves of local food pantries, funding clean water initiatives on the other side of the globe, creating economic opportunities through microfinance loans and gifts, and lots of one-on-one “invisible” ministry initiatives to the homeless, sick, aged, grieving, or lonely in their communities. Those acts taught me what Merry Christmas meant.

You’ll offer a great service to those from other faiths and cultures, as well as those who’ve grown up in completely secularized American culture, if you can show them you understand the difference between “Happy Holiday” and “Merry Christmas” in the way you talk about how you do Christmas at church. It can be as simple as leading into an announcement about a youth group “Bad Christmas Sweater Christmas Bash” with a word of explanation: “This is one way our church community shares the fun of the holiday season."

Believe me. A few simple words that clarify your purposes will make it a happier holiday for your unchurched visitors and friends, and will make it easier for them to find their way to the manger.

So Happy Holy Day–and Merry Christmas. They really mean the same thing.

About Dakota O'Leary

Dakota O'Leary is a freethinker, and often sassy, scholar of theology and literature. She got her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Theology from the State University of New York College at Buffalo, and her Master of Arts degree in Theology and Literature from Antioch University-Midwest. She is a contributing writer focusing on eschatology, biblical prophecy, and general religious news. Dakota is a co-host of the God Discussion radio show, offering insight to the news stories of the week. We like to call her "our in-house Biblical prophecy expert" as her articles on eschatology have received over 200,000 views on God Discussion.
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