“Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”?

That is the question.  Whether ‘tis nobler…

Prince Hamlet’s thinking leaned more existential than a choice between appropriate verbiage for a non-secular holiday salutation in the 21st century. Still, it’s a question we modern-day philistines are faced with. And there’s an element of nobility and gallantry behind deciding how to answer the question posed in my essay header.

I’ll get to the quick: while I’m not anal about it, I prefer “Happy Holidays.” You conservatives might say it’s because I’m a leftist liberal.  There’s a grain of truth to that (although I’m not as leftist as some of you might think).  I would say a more appropriate reason is that I often employ the same brain machinations in non-political as political ways. Hey, I am what I am.

When I was a kid I threw around “Merry Christmas” all the time (or in print, the lazier “Merry Xmas”).  I didn’t know anything about religion.  Hell, I barely knew how babies were made.

I’m older and somewhat wiser now.  I now realize that Christmas is a commercial religious celebration (or at least it started out religious), but that a lot of my fellow Earthlings actually are not Christians.  Eureka!  We’ve got Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, paganists, agnostics, and atheists galore here in Uncle Sam land.  (Maybe not in North Dakota…but you know what I mean.)  Lots of smaller cults, too.

I’ll still say “Merry Christmas” in return if I’m greeted that way, because I know the person greeting me is okay with it.  But if I’m doing the initial greeting, and I’m ignorant of the religious or non-religious affiliation of the person, I always say “Happy Holidays.”  Like Mutual of Omaha, it’s an all-encompassing insurance policy.  It covers New Year’s Day, Hanukkah, and I think it usually satisfies atheists and garden-variety, Christian-tinged agnostics like me.

(I shouldn’t forget Kwanzaa, a black cultural celebration occurring just after Christmas.  Kwanzaa’s popularity has evidently declined since its peak in the 1990s, to the undoubted dismay of Hallmark.)

***

So to those fist-pounding militants who want to “Put Christ back in Christmas,” like the guy around the corner with all the crazy yard signs, I say “knock yourselves out.”  Just don’t foist it on me.  Nothing against Christ—who, by the way, preached humility and tolerance—but I’ll celebrate Christmas in my own way, thank you.

It’s all about politeness.  Or gallantry and nobility. You know, “’Tis nobler.”  Unfortunately, and as we’ve seen with people who are adamant about their “individual rights” and defying “government intrusion” by refusing to wear facemasks in public—masks intended to protect themselves and others—politeness is in absentia in certain dark corners of the country right now.

But in the Christmas spirit, I’ll offer a “Happy Holidays” to even these people.  And throw in a “Be Safe” for good measure.

The Dead Sea Scrolls on Tour

scrolls

Jerusalem (population 800,000) is the holy city for the three main Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  It’s located on a plateau surrounded by valleys.  If you head southeast from the city, the terrain becomes increasingly rocky and desolate.  About 21 miles (34 km) from Jerusalem, near the northwest edge of the Dead Sea – the lowest body of water on earth – is an ancient site known as Khirbet Qumran.  There are steep cliffs surrounding Qumran, with a series of small caves poked into the cliffs.  And within these caves were discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The scrolls are a collection of 972 texts that date to the first few centuries BCE (BC) and CE (AD).  Some of the texts are non-biblical, some are manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament to Christians), and they comprise the earliest known writings of Second Temple Judaism.  One scroll is an entire copy of the Book of Isaiah.  The scrolls lay hidden in darkness for 2,000 years until being discovered by a Bedouin shepherd in 1946.  Then for the next several decades they were painstakingly pieced together and eventually published.

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to view a small part of the scrolls at the Cincinnati Museum Center.  The exhibit is subtitled “Life and Faith in Ancient Times,” apropos because many of the scrolls offer clues about the type of society in which the scrolls were conceived.  Many historians think the scrolls formed the library of a long-extinct Jewish sect called the Essenes, who left the more mainstream Jewish faith to practice a more ascetic form of Judaism (although the true authors of the scrolls may never be known).

It’s hard to describe the feeling: peering into a thick glass case at ancient, torn parchment that existed before, during, and after the time of Christ.  Just gazing on a few shreds of browned goatskin, with faint but precise Hebrew (or Aramaic) lettering from the Book of Numbers: “…May the Lord make his face to shine upon you.”  It sent shivers up my spine.  Until the discovery of the scrolls, the oldest known Hebrew Bible manuscript dated to the 10th century.  So the Dead Sea Scrolls were a leap back of 1,000 years.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority is currently digitizing the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The exhibit in Cincinnati will run until April 14.  The scrolls will be rotated out in sets until then.