The (not very Christian) reason I will say “Merry Christmas” this year

For most atheists, the supposed “War On Christmas” is pretty boring. It’s basically a joke issue because 1) the vast majority of non-Christians don’t care if people say “Merry Christmas”, and often say it themselves, and 2) no Christians are actually hurt by someone not saying “Merry Christmas” to them. The whole idea that someone might be offended by hearing the term “happy holidays” is downright absurd, and in some ways could be seen as offensive in and of itself.

This year the issue has been re-ignited by president-elect Trump saying that it’s super-duper important to him that people in the United States say “Merry Christmas”. Apparently this is an issue that gets some Christians fired up, for reasons that baffle most non-Christians (and, in fact, most normal people).

For what it’s worth, I’ve said “Merry Christmas” for most of my life. In the past when people have asked me,  “Why do you say Merry Christmas if you don’t believe in God?” I generally have answered:

“Why do you say Thursday if you don’t believe in Thor?”

But this year, after giving it much thought, my reason has changed. To understand why, I’d like to take a slight digression to tell you about thermoses and escalators. It will make sense in the end, I promise.

Thermoses and Escalators

In 1892, research scientist Sir James Dewar invented the “vacuum flask” as a way of keeping chemical materials used for experiments at the same temperature for longer periods of time. It didn’t start being used commercially to keep drinks warm or cold until 1904, when two Germans came up with the idea and trademarked the name “thermos” (from the Greek word “Therme” for heat).  Thermos GmbH sold trademark rights to three independent companies in 1907, who then began producing it and selling it around the world.

It was very popular. Everybody wanted a Thermos. And other companies started making their own “vacuum flasks”, which people happily called “thermoses” even though they were not related to the original brands. In 1963, a court ruled that “thermos” could no longer be considered a trademarked term: it was so widely used as a generic term, that its meaning had simply changed. In the language of patent and trademark law, it had been genericized.

This happens a lot. Another fun example is the escalator. The term was first coined by Charles Seeberger of Otis Elevator Co. in 1900. Little bit of trivia you may not know: it was supposed to be pronounced with the accent on the middle syllable — es-CA-lator  —  because Charles has some very complicated opinions about the Latin roots on which the word is based.

But no matter! Otis accidentally used the word “escalator” as a generic term (that is: he used it to refer to devices of a certain type, whether or not they were made by Otis Elevator Co.) in the language of one of his subsequent patent applications! Lawyers can be very picky about language, so: that was that! It was officially genericized.

Today, companies are more savvy about this type of thing and work very hard to make sure their trademarks do not get genericized. Xerox fought constant legal battles and made constant threats of litigation to make sure the word “Xerox” didn’t get transformed into a verb that meant “photocopy”.  Unilever wants to make sure you know that not all cotton swaps are “Q-tips”. And this is with good reason, because:

when people over-use a word in a context that it wasn’t originally intended,
the meaning of the word changes.

Back to Christmas

Now I’d like to speak directly to the Christians who have been fighting so very hard to make sure everyone says “Merry Christmas” during the December holiday season:

When you insist that a bunch of of Jews, Muslims, Satanists, Pastafarians, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and non-religious folks of all types use the phrase “Merry Christmas” over and over again… what is it, exactly, that you think is going to happen?

What’s your strategy, here?

Do you honestly think that having them use those words every December will make them think of their winter holiday more religiously? Do you think that hearing the word “Christmas” will magically burrow into their minds and make them think: “Oh… now that I utter the word Christmas, I may as well change my metaphysical beliefs!”

Because …that’s not how this works.

The more you try to coerce people to over-use the word “Christmas”, the more diluted it becomes. It becomes less specific, less special, and less linked to whatever Christian significance it may have had at some point in history.

Language meaning comes from use. If a bunch of non-Christians constantly use the word “Christmas” to refer to literally any celebration that happens in December — whether it involves flying reindeer and singing songs about bells, or just taking time off from work — then over time that is what the word will mean.

My dear, dear Christian friends: Your “war” isn’t going to change minds. It will only change the meaning of the word “Christmas”.

You don’t think it can happen?

Just ask my buddy, Thor.

My Holiday Christmas Vow

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Don’t be surprised… of course I celebrate Christmas! Who doesn’t celebrate Christmas!? It’s a federal holiday, after all. Who doesn’t celebrate time off from work?

Just as assuredly as I will drink my hot cocoa out of a thermos while riding the escalator up to the store where I buy my big, pagan tree decorations… I will promise to call it Christmas.

Just for you, dear Christians. Just for you.

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  1. Dima says:

    A little offtopic.

    In Russia and Ukraine, almost no one says “Merry Christmas”. But LOTS of people use greeting – response dialog (exactly on orthodox Christmas day):
    – Christ is born.
    – Glorify him!

    And this is everywhere. It’s impossible to hide from this. Pure madness.

  2. Mia Basura says:

    It is true that Christmas has been turned into an orgy of spending & partying in order to be “festive” and “enjoy the holidays”. Frankly, I smile at Festivus and the Airing of Grievances. There truly is a holiday for everyone.

    That being said, there are Christians who do take their holiday seriously and those who deliberately forgo it religiously. To those people, they really don’t care if you say Happy Holidays or whatever generic greeting there may be. Their goal is not to get you to say Merry Christmas, but to see Christ as Lord & Savior. The social Christians (and those who think they’re Christian by virtue of American birth), those are the ones who see other cultures robbing them of their special time. It’s more of a culture robbing than religious. In the end, by using Merry Christmas you will accomplish what you want, the secularization of the greeting without adding any concern whatsoever to those whose mission is to spread Christ’s love. So, it’s a win-win.

  3. RackAttack says:

    Oh, I get it! It’s kinda like when governments and people use the word “marriage” to denote a “secular union” of, say, same-sex individuals, when that word has traditionally been tied to a religious joining together of a man and woman in “Holy Matrimony,” which is a “Sacrament” of religious institutions, thereby bastardizing the word and pissing off people who hold such a term as sacred to their beliefs and traditions, instead of simply using a different, non-religios, term like … well … say, “Secular Union” to denote the, secular, legal joining together of two people, into one legal entity for purposes mostly of a fiscal and legal matters, instead of the heavily religious connotations the word, “marriage” brings to mind in many of the traditionally Judeo-Christian, persuasion, which would stave-off many of the disagreements, arguments and outright “problems” that usage of the term “marriage” in the secular world has now caused between those who see the term for it’s religious connotations being destroyed, in their eyes, to include “joinings” which are seen as an anathema to their beliefs, which all could have been avoided, if governments didn’t usurp a ecclesiastical term for their own purposes, fully knowing it would cause derision and conflict, which, actually is part of a “divide and conquer” modality, which they, and the “New World Order” purposefully seek, so that the latter may more easily dominate and control the masses!

    Yeah! Now I get it!



    • Greg Stevens says:

      That was very long-winded and angry-sounding, but… yes. You essentially get the point. The secularization of society as reflected by the secularization of language.

      Glad you understood.

      P.S. You call tomorrow “Wednesday” but you don’t worship Wotan. Something to think about.

      • RackAttack says:

        I will definitely give that thought in this Year of Our LORD, 2016 anno Domini (A.D.) 😉

        • Mike M says:

          Dude I don’t think you know how stupid you sound. Every comment you make you are literally MAKING HIS POINT. Stop embarrassing yourself.

  4. Mike M says:

    I understand what you are saying, but don’t you think that saying “Merry Christmas” by default contributes to the erasure and invisibility of non-Christians?

    • Greg Stevens says:

      I think if Christmas were still celebrated in a much more religious way across the United States, it would definitely contribute to that problem. And I think in the past in the United States, having “Merry Christmas” be the default DID contribute to exactly the problem you’re describing.

      But if we look at how “Christmas” is celebrated today… it barely even has vestigial similarities to the Christian holiday on which it’s based. In fact, the pre-Christian pagan elements on which the Christian holiday was based are currently emphasized much more strongly than any Christian elements.

      So I just don’t think it’s playing out, culturally, in the way you’re describing. I believe Christmas has become so un-Christian that it doesn’t have the power to inculcate Christianity into people, no matter how unconsciously.

  5. Bradley says:

    Same thing happened with the brand-name Kleenex, becoming the generic word for what was originally sold as a facial wipe/tissue and disposable handkerchief!

    • Greg Stevens says:

      It’s happened with a number of items!

      And for me, I’ve found that using the example of brand becoming generic is a good way to get across to people the idea that “word change through use.” Some people are very resistant to the idea — you know the types: the people who, when in a philosophical debate, break out the dictionary definition of a term and insist that ANY interpretation of the context or connotation of a word that isn’t in their dictionary definition is an “invalid argument”. LOL

      It’s a struggle, with people who debate that way, to get them to acknowledge that usage changes what words ACTUALLY mean…. so turning to the legalism of “becoming genericized” is a nice concrete way to illustrate it.

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