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Abbot Peter Novecosky, OSB


Abbot Peter NovecoskyChanging Christmas traditions

In the last few decades a controversy has arisen over the proper greeting during the Christmas season. “Happy Holidays” is replacing the traditional “Merry Christmas.”

Some American polls indicate recent trends.

A majority of Americans — 59 per cent — say they prefer the greeting “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays,” according to a Knights of Columbus-Marist poll. The nearly six in 10 preferring “Merry Christmas” is slightly higher than last year’s 57 per cent. This year 39 per cent said they preferred “Happy Holidays.” The poll was conducted by Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, New York.

A study by Pew Research Center asked Americans how they think store clerks should greet customers. “Merry Christmas” is the preferred choice of 32 per cent, down from 43 per cent in 2012, the last time Pew asked the question. The generic “Happy holidays” or “Season’s greetings,” went up from 12 to 15 per cent, while 62 per cent said it didn’t matter.

Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who see Christmas as a religious holiday continues to slide across nearly all demographic lines.

“Nine in 10 U.S. adults say they celebrate the holiday, which is nearly identical to the share who said this in 2013,” said the Pew survey. “About eight in 10 will gather with family and friends.”

Among Catholics, 65 per cent said they celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, down from 68 per cent in 2013 — and 51 per cent see it as more religious than cultural. Almost seven out of 10 said they would go to church, down from 76 per cent.

While the decline in Christmas greetings is a sign of today’s more diverse society, a look back at history shows that Christmas greetings are a recent tradition.

In his Jan. 15 Daily Meditation, Franciscan Father Richard Rohr of the centre for Action and Contemplation gives this historical record:

“It was probably St. Francis of Assisi (c. 1182 - 1226) who first brought attention to the humanity of Jesus within organized Christianity. During its first thousand years, the church was mainly concerned with proving that Jesus was God. Prior to St. Francis, paintings of Jesus largely emphasized Jesus’ divinity, as they still do in most Eastern icons. Francis is said to have created the first live nativity scene.

“Before the 13th century, Christmas was no big deal. The emphasis was on the high holy days of Holy Week and Easter, as it seems it should be. But for Francis, incarnation was already redemption. For God to become a human being among the poor, born in a stable among the animals, meant that it’s good to be a human being, that flesh is good, and that the world is good — in its most simple and humble forms.

“In Jesus, God was given a face and a heart. God became someone we could love. While God can be described as a moral force, as consciousness, and as high vibrational energy, the truth is, we don’t (or can’t?) fall in love with abstractions. So God became a person ‘that we could hear, see with our eyes, look at, and touch with our hands’ (1 John 1:1).

“The brilliant Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905 - 1995) said the only thing that really converts people is ‘an encounter with the face of the other,’ and I think he learned that from his own Hebrew Scriptures.”

In our commercialized Christmas celebrations, it’s good to remember the real reason for our greeting: to give God a face and a heart. It’s more than a trite greeting. It’s a sign of our own conversion and transformation. — PWN