Merry Xmas, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas…or What??? ~ The Rt. Rev. Michael R. Beckett, OPI
It’s that time of year again, especially starting today. As we go about the hustle and bustle of our Black Friday shopping, we will begin to hear that dreaded phrase, “Happy Holidays!” Hence begins time for all and sundry to argue the finer points of holiday greetings: Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays, and God forbid someone writes “Xmas.” How unChristian! There’s a war on Christmas!!! Keep Christ in Christmas, for Christ’s sake!!! (Literally???) At the risk of being seen as a non-Christian priest, or a politically correct one, and abandoning or at least not defending my faith and my Lord, I feel compelled for some odd reason, to offer a treatise on the use of Happy Holidays. So here goes….
“Happy Holidays.” Now really, what’s wrong with that? It’s a pleasant wish that encompasses good wishes for an entire month and a half long season. Granted, that “season” is usually meant to be the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, and is usually understood to include only Christmas and New Year’s Day. However, in that time period, what other holidays are there? “Happy Holidays” is a collective and inclusive wish for the period encompassing Thanksgiving, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Winter solstice, Christmas Day (The Nativity of the Lord), Boxing Day and St. Stephen’s Day, St. John’s Day, the New Year and Epiphany, and it would take me forever to get through the list, if I could remember the list at all, just to give a pleasant hello to someone! “Happy Holidays” is just easier! Most of the aforementioned holidays ARE Christian holidays, though, so what’s wrong with “Happy Holidays?”
Leaving those “Happy Holidays” that are in the Christian calendar for a few minutes; let’s look at the ones that aren’t Christian holidays. Granted, I don’t really consider the Winter solstice a holiday and don’t think I know any Wiccans personally, so I can omit that one altogether and not feel too bad about it. Kwanzaa is celebrated by our African American brothers and sisters and is not a substitute for Christmas, nor is it a religious holiday. Wishing someone a happy Kwanzaa does nothing to deny Christianity, but it’s a holiday that I personally don’t celebrate, since I’m not African American. I DO have many African American friends, however, and most certainly wish them all a happy and joyous Kwanzaa, as well as Merry Christmas!
Hanukkah is a Jewish festival, celebrating a miracle that occurred way back in the 2nd century BCE. Also known as the Festival of Lights, it is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt. The story of Hanukkah is alluded to in the book of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees, but Hanukkah is not specially mentioned; rather, a story similar in character, and obviously older in date, is the one alluded to in 2 Maccabees 1:18, according to which the relighting of the altar fire by Nehemiah was due to a miracle which occurred on the 25th of Kislev, and which appears to be given as the reason for the selection of the same date for the rededication of the altar by Judah Maccabee. Now, 1 and 2 Maccabees are not considered canonical books by most Protestants, but are included in the Apocrypha, which IS in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. So while Hanukkah is not a Christian holiday, per se, it can be considered Biblical. And since it celebrates the lighting of the rededication of the Temple and is celebrated with lights, and Christ is “the Light of the World,” and the fact that Christianity has its roots in Judaism, Happy Hanukkah to my Jewish friends!
The day after Christmas is Boxing Day, which is celebrated in the Commonwealth countries. The tradition of Boxing Day has long included giving money and other gifts to those who are needy and in service positions, and this European tradition has been dated to the Middle Ages. Shouldn’t we, as Christians, do this year round, and not just during the “holidays”?
New Years Day: Now, there’s a pagan holiday for you! The Romans dedicated this day to Janus, the god of gates, doors, and beginnings. The month of January was named after Janus, who had two faces, one looking forward and the other looking backward. It is from this Roman custom that we get the making of New Year’s resolutions: looking backward, we resolve to not do something or other, and looking forward, we resolve TO do something or other. Among the 7th century pagans of Flanders and the Netherlands, it was the custom to exchange gifts at the New Year. So, I guess I’m asking, should we as Christians NOT celebrate the new year and not wish everyone a “Happy New Year”? If this is the case, then we should certainly avoid making New Year’s resolutions, too. (Especially those that include diets and exercise!)
And then, there are the religious holidays that most Christians don’t really celebrate, and some don’t even know about. The Feast of Saint Stephen, who was the first Christian martyr on 26 December, the Feast of St. John who was the “Beloved Disciple” on 27 December, the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on 8 December, and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on 12 December have already been mentioned.
Finally, there is Epiphany, which is perhaps one of the most important holidays of the liturgical or church year. It is the last day of the Twelve Days of Christmas of which we sing in the (often-denigrated) Christmas carol, and which is overlooked by most non-liturgical churches. Epiphany, which falls on January 6, is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ. Western Christians commemorate principally (but not solely) the visitation of the Biblical Magi to the Baby Jesus, and thus Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles. The early Christian Fathers fixed the date of the feast on January 6. Ancient liturgies noted Illuminatio, Manifestatio, Declaratio (Illumination, Manifestation, Declaration) taken from Matthew 3:13–17; Luke 3:22; and John 2:1–11; where the Baptism and the Marriage at Cana were dwelt upon. Western Christians have traditionally emphasized the “Revelation to the Gentiles” mentioned in Luke, where the term Gentile means all non-Jewish peoples. The Biblical Magi, who represented the non-Jewish peoples of the world, paid homage to the infant Jesus in stark contrast to Herod the Great (King of Judea), who sought to kill him. In this event, Christian writers also inferred a revelation to the Children of Israel. Saint John Chrysostom identified the significance of the meeting between the Magi and Herod’s court: “The star had been hidden from them so that, on finding themselves without their guide, they would have no alternative but to consult the Jews. In this way, the birth of Jesus would be made known to all.” The earliest reference to Epiphany as a Christian feast was in A.D. 361, by Ammianus Marcellinus. St. Epiphanius says that January 6 is hemera genethlion toutestin epiphanion (Christ’s “Birthday; that is, His Epiphany”). He also asserts that the Miracle at Cana occurred on the same calendar day, and it was on this day, too, that John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. So on 6 January, after all the Christmas trimmings have been put away, the gifts exchanged, New Years resolutions have been made (and some broken already), and the kids are back in school, we can still say, with all feeling, “Happy Holidays.”
Honestly, don’t you think “Happy Holidays” is so much easier? And besides, I really like Bing Crosby’s Christmas carol, “Happy Holidays!”
Now, What about that pesky “Xmas” that annoys so many people?
To begin: Look around in your churches, my friends, especially those of you from a liturgical background, and see how many X’s you can find.
“Xmas” is a common abbreviation of the word “Christmas”. The “-mas” part is from the Latin-derived Old English word for “Mass”, while the “X” comes from the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of the Greek word Χριστός, translated as “Christ”. There is a common misconception that the word Xmas is a secular attempt to remove the religious tradition from Christmas by taking the “Christ” out of “Christmas”. While “Xmas” is considered to be an informal abbreviation, and should never be used in formal writing, it is historically correct.
The word “Christ” and its compounds, including “Christmas”, have been abbreviated in English for at least the past 1,000 years, long before the modern “Xmas” was commonly used. “Christ” was often written as “XP” or “Xt”; there are references in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as far back as AD 1021. This X and P arose as the uppercase forms of the Greek letters χ and ρ used in ancient abbreviations for Χριστος (Greek for “Christ”), and are still widely seen in many Eastern Orthodox icons depicting Jesus Christ. The labarum, an amalgamation of the two Greek letters rendered as ☧, is a symbol often used to represent Christ in Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christian Churches.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the OED Supplement have cited usages of “X-” or “Xp-” for “Christ-” as early as 1485. The terms “Xpian” and “Xtian” have also been used for “Christian”. The dictionary further cites usage of “Xtianity” for “Christianity” from 1634. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, most of the evidence for these words comes from “educated Englishmen who knew their Greek”.
In ancient Christian art, χ and χρ are abbreviations for Christ’s name. In many manuscripts of the New Testament and icons, Χ is an abbreviation for Χριστος, as is XC (the first and last letters in Greek, using the lunate sigma); compare IC for Jesus in Greek.
Thus, really and truly, the use of the “X” isn’t taking Christ out of Christmas at all. And instead of protesting the use of “X” during the Christmas season, wouldn’t we ALL be better people, the world be a better place, and Christ be better served, if we kept that “X” in our words and deeds every day of the year? Should we not celebrate Him always, 24/7/365?
So, having said all of the above, Happy Holidays (all of them) to all of you, and may you keep Christ, not only in Christmas, but also in your hearts and minds and lives, every day and always. Amen.
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