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The word's religious roots: 'holy' and 'day'

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‘Holiday’ Isn’t a Bad Word

The word’s religious roots: ‘holy’ and ‘day’

This Christmas season is just getting stranger as we go.
 
All over the place people are trying to figure out what to say to each other (“Happy holiday(s),” “Merry Christmas,” “Get out of my way, I want that iPod”) and how to talk about the time of year we are in. I tried just saying Happy December to a few people and they just rolled their eyes. I agree; it didn’t do much for me either.
 
Schools are hotbeds for these kinds of scuffles. One school near Seattle spent $494 to reprint a cafeteria menu that had Merry Christmas on it. The news account in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said “a new nutrition services employee mistakenly prepared them (the menus) with the greeting ‘Merry Christmas.’” Apparently, the new nutrition services employee missed an important part of the job orientation.   
 
Another Seattle-area school district had a problem with a Christmas tree. Some shrewd people at Medina Elementary are aware that far away from the tolerant halls of the public school some children still celebrate Christmas. Thus, they put paper mittens labeled with gift ideas on the tree to serve as buying prompts for the students. Children were to take them and bring back the wrapped gifts to distribute to needy children as Christmas presents. Not on tax payer funded school time of course.
 
The whole plan was undone by some thoughtless and probably bigoted person who put a star on the top of the tree, thus giving the tree an eerie and palpably offensive resemblance to a religious symbol. Naturally a parent complained and the school staff resourcefully covered up the star on the tree, calling it a “giving tree.” Brilliant.
 
However, the affront to the sensibilities of the offended parent was not assuaged by this clever subterfuge. And now, the tree is gone. In the nonspecific spirit of the nonspecific season, the school is continuing to distribute paper mittens and accept donations at the counter in the office. The school office manager explained: “We covered the star and called it a giving tree. We hoped it would suffice, but it didn’t," Chris Metzger said. "Now we just have a giving counter."
 
I can hear the school holiday program now. Instead of the strains of “O Christmas Tree,” the children will sing: “O Giving Counter, O Giving Counter, How Shiny is Thy Surface.”
 
Speaking of catchy and inclusive holiday pageant tunes, a school district in Wisconsin is attracting attention through the singing of a song called “Cold in the Night.” The words are “Cold in the night, no one in sight, winter winds whirl and bite, how I wish I were happy and warm, safe with my family out of the storm." These words are supposed to be sung by the children to the tune of “Silent Night” (for those of you who don’t know or remember, Silent Night is a Christmas carol).
 
As poetic as those new lyrics are, I don’t understand the point of singing them. I’ve been to Wisconsin in winter, it is really cold there. Call me crazy but I don’t understand why I would want to break out into festive song about freezing outside, alone and separated from my family.
 
Sounds depressing to me.
 
All of this holiday happiness got me thinking. What is a holiday anyway?
 
The dictionary reminds us that holiday is derived from two words: holy and day. A holy day. So at root, a holiday is a day set aside for religious observance. Seems like we’ve come full circle.
 
Here’s how I am going to think of it. When folks say, “happy holidays,” they are really wishing me a pleasant holy observance. In my tradition, during December, that would be Christmas. I appreciate that. And I will smile to myself knowing that one cannot completely avoid the reason for the season, even when tolerantly trying to do so.
 
Oh, and if I hear someone singing “Cold in the Night,” I will invite the shivering person in for some Christmas cookies and hot chocolate.
 
Happy Holydays!

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Written By

Dr. Throckmorton is an associate professor of psychology and fellow for psychology and public policy in the Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College. He is past president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association and is the producer of the documentary, I Do Exist about sexual orientation change. He can be reached at www.drthrockmorton.com.

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