1. Why You Can’t Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Let me begin by fussing over a semantic distinction that, in itself, is rather petty but reveals a serious underlying incongruity in contemporary Christian observance of Christ’s birth.

I’m sorry, but you simply can’t “have yourself a merry little Christmas.” You can’t schedule or plan the birth of Jesus any more than Joseph or Mary or the shepherds did. You aren’t in control of the story. Not even your own experience of the event. “Now, hold on,” you would be right to interject, “people aren’t really implying all this when they say ‘I hope you have a merry Christmas.” I know that. But my concern is generated whenever I hear something like, “We are going to have our Christmas early this year because Jenny and Ralph need to leave for Florida on the 23rd.” Or, “We have Christmas with my family on the even years, and with my in-laws on the odd years.” Or, “Our church offers a sale with free or inexpensive gifts so that even the most poor of our neighborhood can have a good Christmas.”

In expressions like these, which I do hear often on the lips of Christians, it is clear that what people mean by “having” Christmas is not the celebration of the birth of Christ but the opening of presents. We may not be as  blatant as KMart promising “Get more Christmas for your money,” but the unconscious equation of the Christian feast day with unwrapping our presents is inexcusable. Our language should not contradict what we say we believe about the essence of the holiday.

Neither department stores nor secular humanists have forced this inconsistency upon us. Nor should we blame, in itself, the wonderful practice of giving each other gifts. Rather, in losing our perspective, we simply have not been conscious of the way we have let the commercial aspects of our celebration affect our language. And language IS important.

I believe, that “have” word has stressed us out in more ways than by its focus on the commercial element of the celebration. Church people, as much as anybody, frequently bemoan the hectic mode of Christmas. Just look at all the things we “have to have” in order to “have a good Christmas.” Decorations as good as the neighbors. The perfect tree. At least as many people in the cookie exchange as last year, and personally the best entry. The same wreath and candle (made by Mrs. Jones) in the same church window, in place by the same day. An adorable children’s pageant on Children’s Pageant Sunday. And I haven’t yet even mentioned wrapping paper!

People! Christmas is not something you “have.” Christmas is something that happens to you. And if it genuinely happens, Christmas is something that knocks the stockings off your expectations and pretensions of control. Remember the gospel narratives. Let God surprise you once for heaven’s sake. It may not be a bright star or a singing angel or, goodness—a pregnancy, but then again, who am I  to say?

Exactly how did we get from a simple story about a quiet birth in a stable—a story that we say God orchestrated—to our contemporary program-packed extravaganza-of-the-year? An event that we feel we need to orchestrate? However it happened, we find ourselves in a state of affairs that would baffle the Christians of the first few centuries.

Heaven forbid that anyone agreeing with me should set themselves up as a police force over other people’s expressions, or even let themselves become judgemental when they hear, “Have a Merry Christmas.” But I write with the hope that if I raise a stink, some Christians might just voluntarily experiment with an attempted moratorium on the “have” word when it comes to Christmas. I know it would at least stir some creativity. Please ask yourself, then, “What other expressions could I come up with that would more accurately describe my wishes for those I greet during this season? How do I want people to perceive the importance of my Christmas practices this year by the way I name them?”

What would make this curmudgeon happy is if by creatively skirting the “have” word some Christians were able to replace a little stress with more genuine merriment.


2 thoughts on “1. Why You Can’t Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

  1. I read all 5, in order. It gets better as it goes along. Nos. 4 and 5 the best. I had several thoughts along the way but will stick to one here. What word might best replace “have”? I suggest “celebrate.” But note that “celebrate” has a double meaning. For many people today, it’s simply a synonym for “Get out and party!” That’s what it was for the ancient Romans with their carnivalesque Saturnalia. In No. 3, you point out that the Christians living in that culture felt the need to replace it with celebrating the entrance of God into the world in human form (an event of which the coming back to “life” of sunshine that had been dying away day by day was only a symbol). Even for the pagans, that event was legitimately a reason for joy–hence the carnival spirit: the world turned upside down. As you say, the Christians “confronted, adopted, adapted, and baptized ideas and images from the pagan religious world.” And here’s where the other meaning of “celebrate” comes in, to acknowledge the mysterious presence around us of something (Something?) much greater than we are–truly “awesome” in the good old-fashioned sense of that word. Even the Pagans were reacting to some (perhaps dim) sense of that. There was something very natural and right about their reaction. But “natural” isn’t enough. To say that the Christians “baptized” it means that they added the supernatural element to it. Realizing that there was some truth in what the Pagans were doing–but truth incomplete and distorted, twisted–they took that and made it more perfect (which is what baptizing does), or at least set it on the way to perfection. They knew, through their own experience of baptism (dying with Christ and rising again in Him, Romans 6) Who it was they were celebrating. And remember that in both senses of the word, the me-centered “party” sense and the God-centered awestruck sense, joy is part of what’s happening (even though there’s something pseudo about the lesser kind of “joy”). So it’s OK to be “merry.”


  2. As any fifth grade student of mine knows, the word “have” is about as weak as verbs come in our language, better used to accompany a past participle. Actually, “celebrate” was also the word I considering as a replacement. Yet that, too, seems to negate the mystery associated with this season. The light that led those to Jesus has always been somewhat unexplainable and certainly not one initiated by our intent, albeit how noble, to celebrate. In contrast, “merry” seems to be an appropriate response to the event and one I, too, would advocate. I enjoy your thoughts, Phil.


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