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.