Volume 18 • Issue 31 | December 16 - 22, 2005

Talking Point

The Christmas tree in City Hall Park.

O Mr. Mayor, will you bring us joy and sing ‘O Christmas tree’

By Victor J. Papa

“Happy Holiday” is a greeting that tries to ignore the elephant in the room. It’s delusional. It makes believe Christmas doesn’t really exist when all around us it does. It’s as delusional as Mayor Bloomberg proclaiming the Christmas tree he lights in City Hall Park as the “Holiday” tree — two blocks from where families of Southbridge Towers not only light a Christmas tree, but in a prayerful spirit have a priest bless it in their public square.

The comedy is in the art of elaborate, contrived arguments that suddenly turn a Christmas tree into a secular symbol, driven, I suspect, by another delusion; the need to appear inclusive and tolerant, but which only results in excluding, through blatant forms of intolerance, those symbols and customs held sacred by a major population of the city. From inception and through the centuries, the Christmas tree has for Catholics been a key theological symbol: “Christ Among Us.” Thus, attempts to appropriate other than religious meanings to it could also be offensive, especially considering government-sanctioned ceremonial tree lightings are void of even the slightest reference to the spiritual and Christian symbolism it represents — a symbolism which many Catholics give assent to.

And, as it always does, the “Happy Holiday” greeting is sure to cause dismay among those who celebrate the spiritual aspects of Christmas. This includes many Catholics. That’s because the greeting, now used more and more to replace the traditional “Merry Christmas” greeting, is considered egregious by its attempts to gloss over the sacral nature of the holy feast; implicitly promoting an all-encompassing “correct” greeting. There is a perception that the greeting is purposely contrived so as to politely disavow whatever sacred attributes are associated with Christmas itself. The reaction becomes further exacerbated when the same conventions people use to choose a holiday greetings for other occasions, would require them to say, for example, “Happy New Year” rather than “Happy Holiday” to Jews and Asians, as a direct and appropriate nominal acknowledgement of these groups’ significant respective celebrations. It’s the same rule that guides people to say “Happy 4th” for Independence Day or “Happy Thanksgiving” for Thanksgiving Day.

But for Christmas, one of the most sacred feasts of the Christian calendar, social convention would call for the opaque, if banal “Happy Holiday” greeting. In fact, this greeting is now pointedly promoted as acceptable, even to the extent that children are taught to omit the word “Christmas” as a matter of official school curriculum. One cannot but interpret a bit of tyranny in this, an implicit motive to purge any traces of the religious nature of Christmas, which for the most part, is celebrated as a religious feast by a major part of the N.Y.C. population.

Some Catholics also feel that those who choose this particular greeting are condescending. However cordially and spirited “Happy Holiday” is offered to someone who celebrates Christmas, it cannot dispel some perceptions that the greeting is offered so as to dispense with the profound; so as to avoid the slightest risk of appropriating ideas that are perhaps too contaminated with “unenlightened” notions of “God,” “Jesus,” “Christ,” “incarnation,” “angels,” and themes of that nature. There is a sense that the “Happy Holiday” greeting is another way of conveying that whatever you people are celebrating, it is not sufficiently “open-minded” as to even warrant a proper name; there is no such thing as a “holy” day, it’s a holiday.

An interesting irony to this phenomenon is how the menorah makes the point so magnificently. I always see the menorah as a prevailing “religious” symbol. It triumphs over any attempts to reduce faith and heritage to secular symbols, either on Park Ave. or in the plaza at Southbridge, where I live. I refuse to acknowledge it as a mere political symbol of freedom, as some would limit its meaning, without also considering the essential faith aspect upon which it is based: Chanukah — the reclaiming, purification and rededication of the temple by Judah Maccabee and his followers.

The menorah would be without any religious significance if the oil meant to light it — oil enough for only one night — didn’t last for eight. It’s a story about reclaiming heritage, restoring faith, and liberating the faithful, all of which is achieved through the direct intervention of Yahweh himself — a miracle, and thus, a sure sign of Providential affirmation against those who would oppressively interpose their own symbols and culture in place of those held by the faithful for centuries. Wherever the menorah is displayed in our fair city during Chanukah, my own faith as a Catholic is bolstered because the menorah stands boldly as a symbol against secular suppression… proclaiming from the start: Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who has made us holy through His commandments, and commanded us to light the Chanukah light.

Victor J. Papa is a member of St. James Parish in Lower Manhattan.


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