War was raging in 1942, and I’m not talking Axis and Allies. No, in August that year Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby unleashed their song “Happy Holiday” on the unsuspecting masses. The deadliest war in American history had begun.
The war on Christmas.
Chances are you just rolled your eyes at my hyperbolic description of one of the most beloved songs in the American songbook. You probably know that the movie in which it appeared, Holiday Inn, also featured “White Christmas.” That’s right — “Happy Holidays” and Christmas comfortably coexisted for decades, but then it happened.
“It,” of course, is the “war on Happy Holidays” launched by conservative pundits at the turn of the 21st century. These guys work in exaggeration and hyperbole like Bing worked with that smooth voice of his, using their gifts to whip their audiences into an emotional frenzy.
The pundits’ red-faced logic goes something like this: In their never ending quest to render America a Godless wasteland, a team of liberals working around the clock in an underground lair contrived a new phrase that would omit Christ from Christmas. Somehow these savages persuaded businesses to join their Quixotic cause, and “happy holidays” contaminated our idyllic, Rockwellian landscape. Even retailers, which are more dependent upon Christmas for their survival than any other sector, couldn’t wait to ostracize the swaddled baby Jesus once they got wind of this brilliant master plan. Christmas was under attack, and only Joe Pundit could save it.
It’s a fun story, but it left many of us scratching our heads. We’d used this innocuous phrase for decades with no psychic harm, yet suddenly wishing someone “Happy Holidays” suggested nothing short of demonic possession. Poor Bing.
In truth, neither Bing nor Irving nor millennial left-wingers coined the phrase, though Crosby most certainly popularized it. Good Housekeeping used the phrase as far back as 1890, when author Priscilla Bennett wrote, “As our efforts were so appreciated in this way…let us hope, as the next happy holidays comes round, many more will be in readiness…to try this simple, but joyous way of once more making ‘others happy.'”
Making others happy was the song’s intent, too, it’s lyrics hopeful that “your every wish comes true” and that “the calendar keeps bringing happy holidays to you.”
Interesting footnote: In the world of Holiday Inn, “Happy Holiday” is a New Year’s song, which brings us to what has made “happy holidays” such a useful phrase for at least 125 years. The end of the year is packed with holidays, and I’m not even talking about a plurality of faiths or lack thereof. The “holidays” are generally understood to mean the period of time stretching from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. Christmas represents one single date within that time frame.
Think about our use of language: Nobody says “What did you get her for holiday,” or “did you visit your folks on holiday.” Even the least devout among us says “Christmas” in these instances because we are referring to a specific day. If language was really being used to wage a “war on Christmas,” this would not be true. The proper noun “Christmas” would never be used.
On the other hand, a phrase like “did you enjoy the holidays” makes sense because it covers the span of time encompassing three holidays. It’s a linguistic shortcut, and we all know what it implies. We’ve always known, because this has been the connotation of “the holidays” for longer than anyone living can remember.
How a handful of pundits hijacked this harmless, useful phrase remains a mystery to me, and why they did it remains an even bigger mystery. At least since the end of the nineteenth century we’ve enlisted the phrase in an effort to “make others happy,” as Ms. Bennett wrote, yet this pack of modern day Scrooges insists on contorting its meaning into something cruel. It’s just…weird.
Regardless of how they managed to do it, over the past 15 years the jabber jaws have convinced many that there’s a war on Christmas and its Trojan horse is “happy holidays.” No amount of evidence to the contrary — not Bing in ’42 nor Good Housekeeping in 1890 — will persuade them otherwise, so let’s propose the following to these folks: We’ll strike the offending phrase from the lexicon if you’re willing to commit to saying “Did you have a nice Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s” repeatedly for a month and a half each year. Alternately, you could save yourself some syllables and take comfort in the knowledge that the word holiday’s origin is “holy day” and let the rest of us enjoy the season.
Seriously, people: enough with the war on Christmas nonsense. Let’s get back to making others happy. I’m sure Bing would approve.