In Part 1 of this post I commented on the trend to replace Merry Christmas with Happy Holidays, and explained why I don’t see any need to replace seasonal references to the birth of Christ with a more generic, vanilla type of greeting. Now I want to shift gears and show you that when people think they are avoiding a reference to Christ by wishing you Happy Holidays, they are actually pointing you directly to Him without even realizing it. In fact, properly understood, Happy Holidays is a very powerful and meaningful greeting with great spiritual significance.
Before getting into the meaning of Happy Holidays, though, I need to keep a promise. In the first half of this post I promised to explain the meaning of both phrases – Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. So let’s start with Merry Christmas. It’s actually not that complicated. The original meaning of the word merry was closer to happy or content. The Christmas part is a contraction of Christ’s Mass, which in medieval England was the name given to the festival celebrating the birth of Christ. So, when you wish someone a Merry Christmas you’re not just wishing them a really good party – although Jesus apparently enjoyed parties. You are really encouraging them to find happiness and contentment in the celebration of Christ’s coming into our world to be our Saviour. Now that’s a reason to celebrate!
OK, so what about Happy Holidays? Here’s where it gets interesting. The English word holiday is actually a contraction of the two words holy day. In medieval English society, the Christian holy days were festival days, when work was suspended. Originally, a holiday was a holy day – a day of celebration intended to commemorate some great event such as the birth of Christ, his Resurrection, and so forth – a day when people were relieved of their usual work and could focus on worshipping God and giving thanks to Him for his goodness. This was usually accompanied by a festive meal.
Of course any true follower of Christ would recognize that such special times of celebration are not a substitute for following Christ the rest of the time. Rather, they are meant to refresh and encourage us, to refocus our attention on God and His gifts to us, so that we can walk with Him every day, and every day can be a holy day. After all, what is a holy day, really? It’s simply a day that is consecrated to God. The word holy means set apart for God’s purposes. For a disciple of Jesus, every moment of time is holy, because we do not belong to ourselves anymore – we belong to Jesus.
But what about the Happy part of the greeting? Doesn’t it seem a bit out of place, side by side with a reference to holiness? No, not really. Although non-believers tend to think that holiness makes people miserable – maybe because there have been too many examples of sour Christians who didn’t understand the joy of the Lord – true holiness actually makes us happier than anything else could do. In fact, in one of his sermons, John Wesley made the claim that it is only possible for us to be truly happy if we are also holy. I believe Wesley was right. When we understand what holiness really means – a simple recognition that our life belongs to the One who made us and paid a price for us, and a daily choice to align our wills with His will and His purpose for our lives – it makes a lot of sense that this way of living would make us happy . It also makes sense that the choice to live independently of God, although it might seem to offer short-term pleasures and rewards, would in the end make us miserable.
So, when someone wishes you Happy Holidays, they have actually unknowingly wished you happy, holy days. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about, when you come right down to it? Jesus came into the world so that the people who had been walking in darkness could come into the light of God’s salvation. Everyone wants happiness. Well, the good news is that God really does want you to be happy. The bad news (which is really good news in disguise) is that you actually can’t be happy – not really happy, eternally happy, totally happy and fulfilled – except as you lose yourself in Him. This is called dying to yourself, and although it may not sound all that appealing, it is actually the way to lasting peace and joy.
A celebration of Christmas without the holiness that Jesus brings is ultimately hollow and unsatisfying. It may amuse us for a while, but it will leave us empty in the end. But a Christmas celebration that points us back to Immanuel, God with us, who came to restore us and make us holy – now that’s a truly merry Christmas, one that will result in lasting peace and joy.
Merry Christmas !
Happy Holidays !
Happy, Holy Days !