It’s a funny expression, Merry Christmas, one that, when you think about it, might seem to ring a bit archaic. During Renaissance times the word merry might even have suggested that alcoholic drinks could have been in play, though the actual etymology of the word “merry” stems from the same root that give us the Latin brevis, “short”; from brevis we also derive the English “brief”. But in the hymn “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” the word merry seems merely to mean what it is, “merry,” “happy,” “joyous,” full of mirth. And so it happens when someone wishes you a Merry Christmas it is unlikely that that person wants you go out and “get a little merry” (i.e. liquored up) on Christmas, nor does that person express a wish for the brevity of your celebration, but simply a wish for you to have a joyous Christmas.
And thus Merry Christmas has been, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an expression of holiday warmth at least since the middle of the sixteenth century. And now, of course, though it is politically incorrect to say “Merry Christmas,” we still say it from time to time, especially when we imagine the person who will potentially receive it is unlikely to be put off by it. Yet though we may try like the dickens not to offend, it is possible that we shall, simply by attending a school Christmas play—as they are sometimes cancelled for being too offensive to folks whose sensibilities are easily riled. But I will say nothing here of a recent example of the cancellation of just such a play, as it is not clear whether or not Tiny Tim’s final line actually had anything to do with the cancellation; school officials allege that it was only a matter of time management.
However it may have been in the case of that play and that school, suffice it to say that there is something flat and lifeless about Christmas without religious significance. A recent piece by Dennis Prager in the National Review bears this out well. His point that, while a secular person can listen to and enjoy Bach just as well as a person of faith, nonetheless there would be no Bach if Bach hadn’t had a fervent faith. Take God out of the mix, and you are left with a landscape devoid of color, a whitewashed, bland and boring vista. A desert without yellow sand or even wind.
I think it might be like making Welsh cookies without raisins. My cousin-in-law (if that is an actual term?), Maria, a noble woman of Italian descent, makes the Welsh cookies of the family according to the family recipe. She sends us a box every December. They are always delicious, made according to the recipe of my grandmother, Blanche. My mother’s recipe was a bit different than her mother’s—with slightly more butter, slightly more sugar. I like both, but probably prefer my grandmother’s truth be told. Yet neither took the raisins out. Take away the raisins and you have an ordinary biscuit. With the raisins, something special.
And I will end it on that note. The jingle goes, “Jesus, the reason for the season.” I will change reason to raisin. It makes all the difference, as the raisin is the Welsh cookies raison d’etre, Christ the Christians’ and Christmas’ raison de vivre.