illustrative manger scene and Christmas tree ornament that says "Away in a Manger"

Why I May Never Say ‘Merry Christmas’ Again

With today’s encapsulation of stories about schools banning certain Christmas songs and Christmas-related words and images, I couldn’t help but think about the protests in recent years over the shift from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays.” I get that for many these things are a lament about the increasing secularization of our culture and that for others these things are about stifling religious speech. But something bothers me about the fuss, and this week I may have finally put my finger on it. In fact, I may never say “Merry Christmas” again.

I don’t know the origin of the phrase “Merry Christmas,” but whatever it might have meant at one time, what’s important to me is what it means now. Webster’s dictionary entry suggests that the word merry now means “full of gaiety or high spirits.” The “archaic” meaning of merry according to Webster’s was “giving pleasure,” and perhaps that understanding better captures what I’m about to say. In either case, merry just doesn’t seem to be the right word to associate with Christmas.

Is merry the right word if the point of a Christmas greeting is to distinguish it from a greeting like “Happy Holidays” that, for many, is not so much a nefarious slam on the celebration of Christ’s birth as it is an acknowledgment that some may be celebrating a contemporaneous seasonable religious event and that others may just see Christmas as a break from the usual routine?

The answer for me came as I was reading the most complete telling of the facts surrounding Christ’s birth found in the New Testament, the story in Luke chapter 2. The word first associated with the birth of Christ is glory. We’re told that an angel appeared to shepherds tending their flocks near where Christ was born and “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” Then a host of angels joined the one angel, and they all began singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” After the shepherds found the Christ child, they left glorifying God.

Glory, not merry or merriment, seems to be the operative word when it comes to how the Scriptures would have us think of Christ’s birth. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking of the word glory and the meaning it is intended to convey relative to God.

This is a subject too deep and full of meaning for this one little commentary, but I’ll focus on this: Glory is often used in Scripture to describe God’s moral beauty and perfection and as a way of describing its visible manifestation when a bit of it breaks through into our earthly existence. Glory is perhaps the best we can do when we try to describe what shone around the shepherds.

I don’t fully understand what is meant by the glory of God, but Scripture gives us some idea. It tells us that sin is more than doing something wrong or not doing what is right but is to “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Scripture also tells us that the natural inclination of human beings is to “exchange the glory of the incorruptible God” for something less glorious and find value, worth, significance, meaning, and praise in that lesser thing.

In this regard I’m reminded of what C.S. Lewis said:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

In conclusion, it seems to me that by “Merry Christmas,” Christians settle for an expression that does not do Christmas justice. The phrase expresses contentment with and wishes for seasonal merriment when glory is what Christmas really offers. It is offered to all those who believe that the baby born in the manger was God incarnate, coming to provide a way by which those who had fallen short of the glory that was originally ours to enjoy—a relationship with the God of Glory—could again enjoy that relationship, both now and for eternity.

Wishing one a merry Christmas is a bit like offering people mud pies for their Christmas dessert. Wishing them a glorious Christmas? Well, that is the offer of a holiday at the sea!1

year-end 2018

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NOTES

  1. Revelation 4:6 in the NKJV says, “Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal.”

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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5 replies
  1. Robert Roark
    Robert Roark says:

    As usual, your comments elevate my thinking about words we so often use without thinking. I was satisfied with Merry until you pointed out how mundane this word is compared to the word Glory. You also pointed out that Christians like me often use the Merry Christmas to show how good we are compared to those who use the phrase Happy Holiday. I am thoroughly and rightfully chastened. Thank you for the inspiration you bring to my life!

    Reply
  2. Bruce Warmack
    Bruce Warmack says:

    Five hundred years ago, commoners created their own lively Christmas music — now know as carols — that may have
    shocked the clergy at the time. The most famous and loved of the early carols was “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
    Though it is still sung much the same way today, the original meaning of the words was entirely different. “Merry”
    meant great and mighty. In the Middle Ages, a powerful army was a merry army, and a mighty king was a merry
    king. The word “rest” simply meant “keep” or “make.” The modern translation should be “God make you mighty, gentlemen.”
    The phrase now makes sense and gives meaning to the common greeting, “Merry Christmas!” Don’t dismay,
    Remember Christ our Savior
    was born on Christmas day,
    To save us all from Satan’s power,
    When we were gone astray.
    These few verses are the essence of the gospel. Have a mighty Christmas!
    From “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs” by Ace Collins

    Reply
  3. Bruce Warmack
    Bruce Warmack says:

    “Merry” has lost its original meaning. Few people can make any sense of one of the favorite carols we sing: “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, Let nothing you dismay”
    Five hundred years ago, commoners created their own lively Christmas music — now know as carols — that may have shocked the clergy at the time. The most famous and loved of the early carols was “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Though it is still sung much the same way today, the original meaning of the words was entirely different “Merry” meant great and mighty. In the Middle Ages, a powerful army was a merry army, and a mighty king was a merry king. The word “rest” simply meant “keep” or “make.” The modern translation should be “God make you mighty, gentlemen.” The phrase now makes sense and gives meaning to the common greeting, “Merry Christmas!” In fact carol gives us the Gospel reminding us not to dismay,
    . Remember Christ our Savior
    was born on Christmas day,
    To save us all from Satan’s power,
    When we were gone astray.

    —Have a Merry Christmas!
    From Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs by Ace Collins

    Reply
  4. John Paul
    John Paul says:

    Hello Mr David,

    Your article sheds a different light on the term Merry Christmas. Your article has also inspired me to do further research on this topic. I always look forward to reading your post because the information you present is correct and challenging.
    Thank you for challenging me and keep up the great work at FACT.
    Your friend John P from Cookeville

    Reply

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