With today’s encapsulation of stories about schools banning certain Christmas songs and Christmas-related words and images, I couldn’t help but think about the protests in recent years over the shift from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays.” I get that for many these things are a lament about the increasing secularization of our culture and that for others these things are about stifling religious speech. But something bothers me about the fuss, and this week I may have finally put my finger on it. In fact, I may never say “Merry Christmas” again.
I don’t know the origin of the phrase “Merry Christmas,” but whatever it might have meant at one time, what’s important to me is what it means now. Webster’s dictionary entry suggests that the word merry now means “full of gaiety or high spirits.” The “archaic” meaning of merry according to Webster’s was “giving pleasure,” and perhaps that understanding better captures what I’m about to say. In either case, merry just doesn’t seem to be the right word to associate with Christmas.
Is merry the right word if the point of a Christmas greeting is to distinguish it from a greeting like “Happy Holidays” that, for many, is not so much a nefarious slam on the celebration of Christ’s birth as it is an acknowledgment that some may be celebrating a contemporaneous seasonable religious event and that others may just see Christmas as a break from the usual routine?
The answer for me came as I was reading the most complete telling of the facts surrounding Christ’s birth found in the New Testament, the story in Luke chapter 2. The word first associated with the birth of Christ is glory. We’re told that an angel appeared to shepherds tending their flocks near where Christ was born and “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” Then a host of angels joined the one angel, and they all began singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” After the shepherds found the Christ child, they left glorifying God.
Glory, not merry or merriment, seems to be the operative word when it comes to how the Scriptures would have us think of Christ’s birth. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking of the word glory and the meaning it is intended to convey relative to God.
This is a subject too deep and full of meaning for this one little commentary, but I’ll focus on this: Glory is often used in Scripture to describe God’s moral beauty and perfection and as a way of describing its visible manifestation when a bit of it breaks through into our earthly existence. Glory is perhaps the best we can do when we try to describe what shone around the shepherds.
I don’t fully understand what is meant by the glory of God, but Scripture gives us some idea. It tells us that sin is more than doing something wrong or not doing what is right but is to “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Scripture also tells us that the natural inclination of human beings is to “exchange the glory of the incorruptible God” for something less glorious and find value, worth, significance, meaning, and praise in that lesser thing.
In this regard I’m reminded of what C.S. Lewis said:
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
In conclusion, it seems to me that by “Merry Christmas,” Christians settle for an expression that does not do Christmas justice. The phrase expresses contentment with and wishes for seasonal merriment when glory is what Christmas really offers. It is offered to all those who believe that the baby born in the manger was God incarnate, coming to provide a way by which those who had fallen short of the glory that was originally ours to enjoy—a relationship with the God of Glory—could again enjoy that relationship, both now and for eternity.
Wishing one a merry Christmas is a bit like offering people mud pies for their Christmas dessert. Wishing them a glorious Christmas? Well, that is the offer of a holiday at the sea!1