If President Trump is to believed, it would seem that Christmas finally returned in 2017, and greater than ever. Now that we’ve all breathed a sigh of relief, I wonder if it might be time to bring back the greeting “Happy Holidays.” Now, I know we’ve just recovered that precious phrase “Merry Christmas” and at long last our baristas and clerks at stores will evidently be compelled to utter it to us as we engage in our commercial transactions (Gaudeamus igitur), but I wonder if the broader “Happy Holidays” might be the more accurate and even more Christian greeting. I want to suggest, tongue-in-cheek, that this is the case for both calendrical and missional reasons.

On November 2, before class, one of my students appealed to me to resolve a dispute.

Student: Is it the holiday season yet?

Me: Well, that depends on what holiday you’re talking about.


Student: [Somewhat bewildered expression]

Me: So, today is the Solemnity of the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed.

Student, now joined by others: [Perplexed look]

Me: All Souls’ Day?

Students: [Silence]

Me: You know, like Halloween is just before All Saints’ Day.

Students: [Look of recognition]

Me: And All Souls’ Day is for the rest of the departed who weren’t quite saints, but whom we love and remember and pray for.

Student: So, like, should we listen to Christmas music yet?

Me: Oh, of course not! It’s not even Advent yet!

There followed a long-winded explanation of my family’s practice of putting up an “Advent bush” in our home, which, by a miracle of the liturgy, is transformed into a Christmas tree upon the completion of Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. I can only imagine what my students suppose their professors’ lives are like outside of class, but I’m sure this conversation served to solidify that it’s decidedly eccentric and weird.

I relate this story because it helps us to understand how dissonant the distinctly Christian liturgical year is with the secular calendar. Ironies abound. On the one hand, the development of the liturgical year’s cycles often occurred in tandem with the secular calendar of the day.[1] On the other hand, our current national calendar is peppered with secular observances of Christian feasts: Christmas, the martyrdom of St. Valentine,[2] Easter, All Hallows’ Eve. Given this history, there is nothing inherent to the Christian cycle of feasts and fasts that insists it must be out of sync with the surrounding culture.

Nor is there any particular virtue in highlighting the differences between them. I’m a card-carrying member of the Advent police, not because I want to rain on anyone’s parade, but because I like the season of Advent. It’s important for my soul to remember that Jesus is going to return and judge me, and to take some time to sit with that, and see what adjustments I might want to make in my life because of it. It’s also because I like the season of Christmas, and I fear that if we let our celebration of Christ’s nativity creep up into the preceding weeks (months nowadays), we’ll have all of that Christmas stuff out of our system by the time Christmas rolls around. Come December 26, we’re ready to move on: dispose of the tree, turn off the carols; see you all next October. But there’s no sense being a jerk about any of this: responding to “Merry Christmas,” with “Repent, for the kingdom is near” or Bah! Humbug!-ing any instance of Christmas festivity before December 25. I will note, though, the irony that so many of our brave soldiers in the war for Christmas want to compel people to wish them a Merry Christmas weeks before it is Christmas, and then lose interest once Christmas arrives.

In the last several years, Christians have improved at highlighting the dissonance between Advent and the secular calendar, but the oddity of our Christmas celebration continuing for some time after our neighbors have packed up their decorations and moved on remains underdeveloped. It strikes me that keeping the 12 days of Christmas might be an important point at which to enhance our Christian witness. What if we came to be known as a people whose parties last far longer than the rest of the world’s?

Returning to my student, though, her commencement of holiday festivities at the beginning of November and her nescience of the church’s solemnities point to why “Happy Holidays” may be the better greeting. If people’s holiday season begins just after Halloween (and increasingly it does), and if the holiday greeting becomes simply “Merry Christmas,” we miss important observances: the feasts of All Saints, All Souls, Saints Andrew, Nicholas, Ambrose, and Thomas (to name but a few) all before we even reach Christmas. In fact, once we reach Christmas and its Twelve Days, major feasts abound: St. Stephen, St. John, the Holy Innocents, and the Holy Name of Jesus. “Merry Christmas” is simply insufficient to cover all of the bases for our Christian commitments. “Happy Holidays” is far more accurate, and better notes that the Church has many holy days to observe.

Beyond this, Christians are not the only ones with holiday observances. Our Jewish neighbors celebrate Hanukkah. Depending on the year, various Islamic Eids will occur during the holiday season. Neo-pagans have solstice celebrations. Kwanzaa, while not specific to any religion, celebrates African heritage, including the importance of faith.

In our pluralist society, “Happy Holidays” acknowledges that not all hold the Christian faith.[3] It reminds Christian people of our responsibility to always be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us, and to do so with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet. 3:15). The Baptismal Covenant obliges Episcopalians to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” (BCP, 305).[4] By not assuming that everyone is celebrating a Christian holiday, we engage with our neighbors more winsomely, respect their heritage and beliefs,[5] and remind ourselves of our joyful duty to share the gospel with all.

Because, finally, mission is the reason for the season. By his incarnation, the Son of God comes from the Father on mission.[6] He comes to gather into one the scattered children of God (John 11:52). His mission brings us the opportunity to share in the divine life he eternally shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit. For “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:4–6).

Now, of course we ought to continue to express our wishes for a merry Christmas. This is indeed one of the holidays we want to be happy, and Christmas is of a stature and dignity that surpasses the other Christian observances of the season. But it does not occlude them: it gives them their meaning. It is because of Christ’s mission that there are saints to celebrate. The holy martyrs share in his passion, which was the culmination of that mission. His life is refracted in these other celebrations, which enrich our appreciation of Christ’s saving mystery. For this reason, we ought not forget them.

And we ought not forget our neighbors, beloved by God, who do not share our Christian faith. We are called not to impose that faith on them, or coerce them in any way, but to provide a witness with our words and actions to the reality of Christ’s welcoming embrace. Christ is sent on mission,[7] and so are we. O come, let us adore him.


[1] The most comprehensive discussion of how Christmas developed is by Susan K. Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas (Kok Pharos, 1995). On the development of the calendar more broadly, see Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson, The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity (Pueblo, 2011); Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 2d ed. (Liturgical Press, 1991).

[2] This feast is no longer observed in the Roman Calendar or the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Instead, Sts. Cyril and Methodius are commemorated on February 14.

[3] In fact, plenty of non-Christians celebrate Christmas, but “Happy Holidays” doesn’t really help on that front.

[4] Other churches understand baptism to carry similar obligations. See, e.g., the Roman Catholic Church’s Lumen gentium, nos. 10–11.

[5] A truly Catholic outlook will not repudiate these observances, but welcome them as opportunities to enrich the Christian community, for all true goods of humanity find their fulfillment in Christ. See, e.g., Lumen gentium, no. 16; Nostra aetate, nos. 1–5; Gaudium et spes, no. 22.

[6] See Thomas Aquinas’s classic treatment in Summa theologiæ, 1.43.1–8.

[7] Indeed, the etymology of Christmas involves the Latin missio/missa, whence comes mission, and the nomenclature of Mass. If we are to keep Christ in Christmas, we must also keep the Mass, and mission, for this is the business on which Jesus was sent.

About The Author

Eugene R. Schlesinger, Ph.D., is lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and the editor of Covenant.

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