Even on Christmas day, television networks and local stations in the American States refer only to the holiday indirectly through “Happy Holidays.” It is essentially to ignore Christmas, or to make a statement to that effect. Either way, passive aggression is involved. Such aggression is also involved when on the very next day—the day after Christmas—the media drops “Happy Holidays” and refers to New Year’s directly. The presence of an ulterior agenda is rendered transparent when more than one holiday is continuing on upcoming even on the day after Christmas. That is to say, were “Happy Holidays” being on the level during the Christmas season, the greeting/exclamation would apply up until the last of the upcoming holidays. In 2011, the private holiday of Kwanzaa began on the day after Christmas and ended on New Year’s Day. The private holiday of Hanukkah began on December 20 and ended on December 28th. Therefore, “Happy Holidays” should technically have lasted through New Year’s Day. That is to say: if that expression is appropriate. I contend that it is not.
I contend that “Happy Holidays” would only be appropriate were more than two national holidays in close proximity to each other. In December, the U.S. Government recognizes only one holiday: Christmas. To be sure, New Year’s Day is also officially recognized, and thus fully appropriate to be recognized by name in the public square. Yet for decades, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” fully captured both of the national holidays. To switch to “Happy Holidays” because holidays of private parties (e.g., groups) are also in December is to fallaciously treat those private groups’ affairs as national holidays due recognition in the public square. More abstractly, to treat a private group’s event as equivalent to a national holiday (national meaning officially recognized by the government, and thus by the general public) is to commit a category mistake. An unconscious discomfort with this category mistake (and the related false entitlement for the private groups’ events) probably contributes to the general resentment of “Happy Holidays” even apart from the natural reaction to the passive aggression wherein one public holiday is singled out to be ignored by name.
An implication of my argument is that there must be a secular Christmas holiday, for otherwise the constitutional separation of church and state would have been violated by the Congress when it made Christmas a national holiday. Government offices such as the post office and courts are closed by law on Christmas. This could not have been mandated because of the religious significance of Jesus. In fact, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas precisely because it is not a religious holiday—the miracle of the incarnation being associated with the conception rather than birth of Jesus. A birthday, in and of itself, is not theologically significant; it is not a miracle. Even so, some Christians are under the misimpression that atheists (not to mention non-Christians) do (or should) not celebrate Christmas. I know of many atheists who do. One need not acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Son of God in order to hang stockings by the chimney with care, decorate a Christmas tree, or believe in Santa (and Frosty the Snowman, as well as Charlie Brown). Millions of non-Christians in India and China have Christmas trees and exchange presents on Christmas; one need not attend a Christian service. In fact, a full array of festivities is regularly made of Christmas by many people without them attributing any religious significance to it.
Generally speaking, much of the “war” about Christmas is fueled by misconceptions and category mistakes. In other words, the whole thing is a bit of a mess. Straining out the confusion, we can conclude that the secular Christmas that is recognized by the general public through its government is the only such holiday in the month of December. It is thus hardly inappropriate for anyone to refer to Christmas by name in the public square. Conversely, no obligation exists to recognize an event or holiday by a private group or association, whether it be religious, political or social in nature (including the religious aspects of Christmas!). If this conclusion be ignored, then at least the “Happy Holidays” should not suddenly end on the day after Christmas unless there are no private events through or just after New Year’s.
Adding a personal observation, the pushy passive aggression, invisible category mistake, ignorance that cannot be wrong, and sheer fakeness of “Happy Holidays”—all seeking to monopolize public discourse like a drill Sargent—had me counting the days during “the season” of 2011 until Christmas. This was not because I could not wait to wake up on Christmas morning (remember how exciting waking up on Christmas morning was as a kid?—and how hard it was to get to sleep on Christmas Eve?). I suspect that as the profit-seeking retailers stretch the Christmas season ever longer and longer, more and more people will suffer such burnout midway through December—and not just because we have allowed the retailers to eclipse Thanksgiving. The mere recognition that a secular Christmas exists for many and that it is recognized by the U.S. Government (and thus perfectly appropriate to refer to by name in public!) is sufficient to clean away much of the rubbish and perhaps restore some of the innocent excitement that many adults had as kids on Christmas. We could then turn our collective sites on those sordid retailers who (conveniently) don’t seem to know the expression, “too much of a good thing.” Hopefully, clear thinking will come out ahead of confusion and resentment.