Now that we’re deep into December, the “Merry Christmas”-“Happy holidays” debate is heating up, right on schedule. There are lots of perspectives on this issue, ranging from the religious to the political to the historical, and we are doubtless seeing all of them raised during the holiday season. There is, however, one approach that is often overlooked: the grammatical.
To those who are still haunted by nightmares about commas, semicolons and the difference between “lay” and “lie,” I apologize. Flashbacks to middle school are never fun. Fortunately, the analysis here is not too complicated.
In fact, a grammatical analysis is pretty simple and hinges on the purpose of the phrases “Merry Christmas” and “Happy holidays.” When we utter these terms, how are they being used?
Several alternatives exist. First, “Merry Christmas” can be used as a greeting, similar to “Hello,” “How are you?” or “What’s up?” In those situations, we are focusing on the person to whom we are speaking, not on ourselves. When meeting a friend or even a stranger on the street, we don’t immediately say, “I’m great,” or “I have a hangnail that really hurts.” Instead, we express an interest in the other person.
“Merry Christmas” can also be used as a farewell, similar to “See you later,” “Have a nice day,” or “Take care.” Again, the emphasis is on the other person, not on ourselves. We’re wishing the other person well or indicating a desire to see him or her again soon. The one exception is the phrase, “I’ll call you” at the end of a bad date. In that context, “I’ll call you” is of course code for “I never want to see or hear from you again.” Interestingly, those who use “I’ll call you” in that way often say that they’re being kind, although they’re actually being somewhat insensitive and self-absorbed.
Finally, “Merry Christmas” can appear on greeting cards. Again, however, the focus of such messages is traditionally on the recipient, not the sender. When we send birthday cards, we send them on the other person’s birthday, not our own. When we send sympathy cards, we send them because the other person has suffered a loss, not because we have. In short, it’s not all about us.
This analysis suggests that holiday greetings are meant to focus on others, not on ourselves. If we know the other person celebrates Christmas, then saying “Merry Christmas” makes perfect sense. If, however, we don’t know whether that person celebrates Christmas — and it is pretty much impossible to tell just by looking at someone unless they’re wearing an ugly Christmas sweater at the time — then “Happy holidays” is better. That phrase covers not only those who celebrate Christmas, but also those who celebrate something else. By saying “Happy holidays,” you have successfully wished others joy on their particular event, just as you would wish them well on their birthday, not yours.
Those who argue that we need to “bring Christmas back” (back from where is not clear — Poughkeepsie, perhaps?) often justify the broad, indiscriminate use of “Merry Christmas” by saying, “I’m sending a message about what I think is really important.” However, it’s equally important to ask what precisely that message is.
Under the grammatical analysis, the message seems to be that, contrary to the traditional norms of polite society, I, the speaker, am more important than you, the listener. Is that really what Christmas is all about?
S.I. Strong is the Manley O. Hudson Professor of Law at the University of Missouri and author of Transforming Religious Liberties: A New Theory of Religious Rights for National and International Legal Systems.