Yes, we are technically still in the Advent season for a couple more days, but this is the time of year folks begin to greet one another with "Merry Christmas!" The origin and exact meaning of the phrase "Merry Christmas" is somewhat debatable, largely because the word "merry" has carried different connotations at different times.
Today, we generally think of "merry" as a synonym of "happy," but that has not always been the case. If happiness refers to a state of well-being, merry has more typically been associated with the actions that accompany that happiness, namely feasting, singing, and other forms of rejoicing. Supposedly Queen Elizabeth II preferred "Happy Christmas" to "Merry Christmas" in her day because "merry" had come to linked with intoxication and boisterousness, not forms of behavior Her Majesty wanted to encourage. Nevertheless, I would encourage you to continue wishing one another a "Merry Christmas." A deeper dive into the history of the word suggests that "merry" also once had associations with strength and valor. Think of the phrase "merry old England," likely a reference not only to the nation's joy but also its imperial strength. Or Robin Hood and his band of merry men, who no doubt knew how to have a good time but were also renowned fighters. It is this combination of mirth and might that are called up in the hymn, "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." This hymn not only calls on men to find rest, comfort, and joy in "Christ our Savior, born on Christmas Day," but also calls on men to be strong, to "fear not," to not be dismayed or discouraged by anything. In other words, the hymn not only calls on these gentlemen to be joyful in light of Christmas, but to be valiant, bold, and brave. May we all be empowered by the gospel's tidings of comfort and joy, in this season and always!
And now for a couple of my favorite Christmas quotations. First, Dorothy Sayers on the mystery and miracle of the Incarnation:
The central dogma of the Incarnation is that by which its [that is, Christianity's] relevance stands or falls. If Christ were only man, then he is irrelevant to any thought about God; if he is only God, then he is entirely irrelevant to any experience of human life. …the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when he submitted to the conditions he had laid down and became a man like the men he had made, and the men he had made broke him and killed him. This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and the hero.
If this is dull, then what, in Heaven's name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore; on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him 'meek and mild,' and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies....
For what it [that is, the Incarnation] means is this, among other things: that for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—he had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile....
And here Christianity has its enormous advantage over every other religion in the world. It is the only religion that gives value to evil and suffering.
What do we find God 'doing about' this business of sin and evil?...God did not abolish the fact of evil; He transformed it. He did not stop the Crucifixion; He rose from the dead.
David Chilton on why the commercialization of Christmas is fitting:
Every year about this time, there rises a hue and cry about the “commercialization” of Christmas, accompanied by impassioned pleas to get back to the “real meaning” of the celebration. Too much time and money, we hear, are spent on the public side of the holiday — the hustle and bustle of shopping, the lavish decorations, and the often insincere displays of seasonal piety. Meanwhile, the true spirit of Christmas gets left behind. Some even argue that all public displays of Christmas are inappropriate.
Every Christmas season seems to spawn a new series of lawsuits charging that the First Amendment is imperiled by the appearance of manger scenes on civic property, or by the singing of carols by the local high school choir. I recall hearing a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union claim that the very message of Christmas itself was being violated by any public recognition of its existence. What we need, he said, is to remove Christmas from public life completely, and allow it to become once again a private, personal expression of religious sentiment and family values.
To him, apparently, the essence of Christmas was like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting — a household gathered around a piano drinking hot spiced cider and singing “Here we go a-wassailing,” while an apple-cheeked matron, her eyes sparkling with reflected light from the roaring fire in the hearth, loads the festal board with heaping platters of roast beef, steamed vegetables, and candied fruit.
Nothing wrong with that, of course, so far as it goes. It just doesn’t go far enough. While it would surely be a mistake to claim that commercialization is the essence of Christmas, such a statement is rather close to the truth. From the very beginning, Christmas was regarded as a public event. It was never regarded as a private matter, still less as the sentimental remembrance of childhood it has become. In its origins, Christmas was not only public, not only commercial — it was downright political.
One of the most well-known scenes of Christmas, commemorated in countless greeting cards and church pageants, is the coming of the Wise Men to honor the baby Jesus. We should note at least in passing the public nature of the occasion. The Wise Men were public figures, and the arrival of their caravan into the capital city of Judea caused a considerable uproar. Far from treating their mission as an issue of private sentiment, they announced that the Child whom they came to worship was none other than the rightful ruler. (A popular rumor held that a coming world emperor would arise in Judea; one Caesar took so seriously he actually made plans to move his capital from Rome to Jerusalem.)
As for the issue of commercialization: it should be obvious that the Wise Men went Christmas shopping. Gold doesn’t grow on trees, and frankincense and myrrh require human labor to produce. Merchants have been capitalizing on the holiday since the very first Christmas.
But there’s more. For the story of the Wise Men’s visit doesn’t end with their presentation of gifts. St. Matthew’s account goes on to tell of King Herod’s jealous rage at this threat to his tyrannical rule (Herod had had several family members murdered, including his own sons, when he perceived them as rivals of his power). Herod realized the political implications of Jesus’ birth, and ordered the massacre of all male babies in the vicinity of Bethlehem. As we all know, Herod missed the One he was after; and the story ends instead with the death of Herod and John the Baptizer’s proclamation of Jesus as King.
The early Christians were much concerned with the public aspects of the Incarnation. Indeed, they were martyred in droves because they refused to privatize their faith. Even their creeds, proclaiming Jesus Christ as the one and only link between heaven and earth, were far from being abstract theological treatises. That proclamation had a political impact that shattered forever the old pagan pretension that merely human rulers were “divine.” Christians and non-Christians alike have benefitted immeasurably from the resulting restraint on governmental tyranny that is unique to Western civilization.
I rejoice in the commercialization of Christmas. It signals the one time in the year when our world approaches sanity. The brightly lit houses, the evergreens garlanded with bulbs, the carols that provide the musical background for even our most hectic shopping — all creation comes alive with the message that the shift from B.C. to A.D. changed the world forever.