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.