Defining Moments

It’s the attitude that matters

sprovost@thetribunenews.comDecember 3, 2012 

Here we are approaching the winter season once again, when children are nestled all snug in their beds (if parents are lucky) and visions of sugarplums dance in our heads ( if we happen to know what a sugarplum looks like).

It’s a joyous, merry, happy season. Now if we only knew what to call it without offending someone.

Some people insist on “Merry Christmas,” others prefer “Happy Holidays” or some other salutation. In a season of peace when the so-called war over Christmas invariably rears its ugly head, I thought it might be interesting to examine the various seasonal greetings we use to wish one another well.

Let’s start with the big one: Christmas. I’ve always found it fascinating that Protestants seem so fond of this word, with its decidedly Catholic suffix. A lot of Protestants talk about “putting the Christ back in Christmas,” but you’ll never hear them suggest putting the Mass back in Christmas — unless they’re bending over backward to be ecumenical. The term “Christmas” wasn’t even used for the first time until 1038, more than halfway into the Christian era.

So is that particular word really so sacred?

And speaking of sacred, what about “Happy Holidays”? That expression comes from the term “holy days,” so if you don’t believe the days are somehow holy, that probably won’t work for you. “Happy Holidays” would be a pretty poor fit for an atheist.

Then there are some other options. Some people prefer to wish others a happy winter solstice. It seems a fairly safe option. The solstice is an astronomical event that doesn’t have any inherent spiritual connotation, though it has historically been an occasion for religious festivities. So it works eitherway. But “Happy Solstice” is too generic for some. So is “Season’s Greetings.”

OK, how about Yule? This one has a couple of advantages. First off, it’s old — it precedes the term Christmas by several hundred years — and secondly, it has long been used as a synonym for Christmas itself. Yuletide. The yule log. But it originally had nothing to do with the Christian nativity at all. Back in the fourth century, it was associated with the Norse god Odin, not Jesus of Nazareth.

Other pagan figures have been associated with the season, as well. In the classical world, feasts for Saturn — the Saturnalia — and the birthday of the Persian god Mithras were celebrated around solstice time, too. But neither of these figures has too many followers these days, so you’re likely to look pretty silly if you go about saying “Merry Mithras” (though it rhymes nicely with Merry Christmas) or “A splendid Saturnalia to you!” In advertising terms, your target audience is pretty small.

I’ve always liked the word “nativity” because it’s versatile. It means birthday, so it can refer to Jesus’ birthday, Mithras’ birthday or the birthday of Sol Invictus, the invincible sun that begins its ascent from the horizon, seasonally speaking, at the winter solstice. The word “noel” serves roughly the same purpose in French.

Unfortunately, however, such options leave Hanukkah and Kwanzaa out in the cold, as these celebrations have nothing to do with anyone’s birthday. All this leaves us back at Square One. No term is universal enough to satisfy everyone, and purists are bound to be disappointed unless they get specific.

But that’s precisely the problem. Aren’t we being too literal here? What if keeping “Christ in Christmas” has nothing to do with semantics and everything to do with attitude? Peace on Earth. Goodwill toward men and women. New beginnings. Hope. Jesus symbolizes all these things to Christians, and most who hold to other faiths — or no faith — will agree that they’re worthy sentiments.

So maybe we should focus on what’s behind the words instead of the words themselves. When it comes right down to it, a scotch pine by any other name smells just as good.

Steve Provost is a Tribune copy editor.

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