Happy holidays and Merry Christmas

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It is supposed to be George Bernard Shaw who said that the UK and USA are “two nations divided by a common language.” Long established differences persist. Nobody in the UK says “gotten” anymore, even though it was normal English use centuries ago. “Oftentimes” appears in the King James Bible but is never used in Britain these days. But both of these words remain part of everyday US speech.

More recent American verbal innovations routinely pass into British use, along with American customs. I remember hearing my mother say “hassle” many year ago, a word that was previously quite foreign to her but became normal British English through repeated TV and flim exposure. Lazy journalists use expressions such as “get real” and “you do the math” or “what’s not to like?” to show they’re on the cutting edge of linguistic change, usually years after the young people they wish to emulate have started using them. I recall an American colleague at JPMorgan introducing us to “heads up” when we had no idea of the sporting context. Now it’s routinely used in British offices. People in the UK now frequently meet “with” people and I’ve noticed “enough already” starting to creep in, but I think it’s an affectation.

While we’ve always celebrated Halloween in the UK, “trick or treating” only came in during the last 20 years. End of school parties have, during the same period, become proms. British culture, like British English, continually changes and borrows from others. English has a vast vocabulary because it spans several different near-dialects around the world, with the British version simply one among them, no long enjoying any privileged status.

It’s interesting watching these changes happen. One that I think is in flux and where the outcome is not yet clear, is what to say as a greeting at this time of the year. In Britain we say “Merry Christmas” or, less commonly, “Happy Christmas”. In the US the preferred term is “Happy Holidays”. I have the impression that this is a bit more of an East Coast thing, perhaps originating in multi-faith New York, though my dear friends in Toronto have also been saying it for the decades I’ve known them. Since most of my emails are to non-British people, I’ve noticed my default greeting in recent weeks has referred to the holiday season, rather than Christmas.

The idea is that, since Christmas is a supposedly Christian festival, people from other faiths or of no faith at all, might be offended at being urged to enjoy it. Whether this offence is ever taken, I don’t know. But the UK (and London in particular) is now one of the most multi-cultural, multi-faith places in the world. Yet “Merry Christmas” is still the largely unchallenged greeting. We are far more conscious of Eid, Diwali and Hanukkah than a generation ago and have simply added them onto the list of days to have fun or take a day off, which is what an economist calls a Pareto-improvement and everybody else calls a good thing. But “Merry Christmas” continues and most British people would, I suspect, think you a bit odd if you said “happy holidays”. Either that or a bit of a Scrooge.

So far as I know there is no groundswell of opposition to “Merry Christmas” in Britain on the grounds of religious chauvinism. I suspect that this is because in Britain Christmas has lost nearly all of its religious connections. It has returned to its roots as a mid-winter pagan celebration  of eating, drinking and dancing, a time to express hope that the long winter nights will eventually give way to spring. This festival long pre-dated the Christians, who hijacked it as they have various other festivals such as the spring holiday now known as Easter. Of course there is now a massive commercial motive too, with vast amounts of unnecessary and wasteful spending generated to keep the consumer economy afloat. Christmas apparently now flourishes in China, not because of the growing number of Christians, but because it’s another chance to boost retail sales. (This is a country that now has a day in November when you’re encouraged to send presents to single people (of whom there are very many) to celebrate their singleness. An economy with this level of commercial imagination is in little danger of faltering).

Britain is a very secular country. This fact is perhaps obscured by the continuation of the Church of England as the established “official” religious institution. If ever the malign effects of monopoly were plain, it is in the moribund state of the Anglican church, at least in its home country. The American constitution prohibits the establishment of any state religion – and the US is by some way the most religious of all rich countries, with a bewildering range of religious options on offer. That prohibition was intended to protect the many protestant Christian groups in the eighteenth century states, with their roots in the turmoil of seventeenth century England, whence they had fled to seek religious freedom. The official C of E commands the active allegiance of a few per cent of the British population, is barely taken seriously and is a by-word for mediocrity, luke warm expressions of faith and wishy washy opinions (except when it comes to denying woman religious equality). There are though, some highly respected individual officers of the Church, including the departing Archbishop of Canterbury, who is to become the Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge in January 2013.

So, Christmas is a safely non-religious festival and it causes no offence (I hope) to wish those of all faiths, and of none, a Merry Christmas.

4 Responses

  1. John

    Great post, Simon, and ‘Merry Christmas to you too’. Related to this, and also http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2012/12/internet-and-language-change, by the end of my year on the Cambridge MBA, I felt that we were speaking a kind of inclusive internationalised English that included typically British and American elements, with the odd Chinese idiom thrown in for good measure. More importantly, we had an awareness of what people were saying and how they were saying it.

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