Christmas vs. the Holidays: A Little Perspective on Our Favorite Schism

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

America’s resourcefulness about sources of outrage is inexhaustible. Is “Happy Holidays” a modern heresy of this secular-humanist century?

Many Americans, when they hear that greeting, begin humming a merry song. “Happy Holiday” (the title’s singular, but the plural comes in the verse) was written in 1941 by Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant whose family fled religious persecution in Russia.

Berlin wrote it for the musical romantic comedy, Holiday Inn. Predating the motel chain, the movie’s about a rustic resort in Connecticut. “Happy Holiday” is really just half a song, alternating with the “Come to Holiday Inn” theme. Bing Crosby sings it on New Year’s Eve: “May the calendar keep bringin’ happy holidays to you.”

Google’s fascinating feature, Ngram, tracks the proportional frequency of words and phrases, sensitive to capitalizations, in print across the centuries.

“Happy Holidays,” as a capitalized phrase, first emerges long before the song, in the 1850s, just as Knoxville and much of America was beginning to celebrate the old Catholic tradition of Christmas consistently. (When the University of Tennessee settled into its current campus in 1828, it was a non-issue. There were no “Christmas” parties, and no “holiday” parties. It just got dark and cold.)

According to Ngram, “Happy Holidays” reaches a peak around 1880, before lapsing. Looking for a reason, I found a book published in London in 1864, called The Happy Holidays; or Brothers and Sisters at Home, by Mrs. Emma Anne Georgina Davenport. It was a children’s book that remained popular for years.

After that, the phrase suffers a long spell of neglect. On Ngram it re-emerges around World War I, for a second career. Not surprisingly, it soars to new heights in the 1940s and ’50s, as Berlin’s movie song is recorded, broadcast, and re-recorded. Then “Happy Holidays” falls off again. Without the context of the song and the movie, it’s a bland phrase. By ’60s standards, it sounded corny.

It has to be said that it’s a bit of an irony that “Happy Holidays,” favored as the politically correct greeting this time of year, comes from a source that’s criticized as being politically incorrect.

Holiday Inn is a hilarious movie, a rare pairing of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, both singing and dancing, with a lot of great songs. It also introduced “White Christmas” and is generally a much better movie than the later one named for that song. But Holiday Inn isn’t as well known, I strongly suspect, because it includes one blackface scene.

On Ngram “Happy Holidays” begins rising again, for a third time, in the late 1970s. Maybe that one’s fueled by what some see as sensitivity and others as political correctness.

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Surely the even more abominable term, “Xmas,” is further evidence of a war on Christmas. But on our kitchen calendar this month is a print of a painting by American artist William Glackens, “Christmas Shopping, Madison Square” from 1912. In the picture is an advertisement for an “X Mass Dinner.”

That dreaded, excoriated, and now rare abbreviation was very familiar in Knoxville newspaper advertisements in the 1880s and ’90s. It was used so often without objection in a religious city that it was pretty obviously not considered sacrilege. Maybe it was just the opposite. I suspect many Christians were uncomfortable with using the word “Christ” in a commercial context. The same newspaper issue would include descriptions of a “Christmas service” or an “Xmas sale.”

They used the letter X, the first letter in the Greek spelling of Christ, and also a typographical symbol used over the centuries to indicate the cross. The intent may not have been to “take the Christ out of Christmas” as much as to avoid offending fundamentalists—and saving valuable ad space in the bargain.

We can track Xmas on Ngram, too, though there were a few different spellings, X-mas being the most common.

According to Ngram, Xmas emerges in the late 1700s and slowly grows in usage, taking off in the 1880s and ’90s. Its all-time peak in usage appears to be around 1923, when my grandmother was young. Usage has trailed off since then. It’s now used less than half as often.

As far as I can tell, the Xmas abbreviation was used liberally in America for almost a century before the rumor spread that it was a symbolic removal of Jesus from His own birthday.

It gets to the basic contradiction of Christmas. Is it a religious celebration of a leader who was known to be ascetic, who warned his followers to avoid possessions and not to worry about what they wear—or a secular extravaganza of bright color and clamor during the darkest weeks of the year?

The fact is, that as long as it’s been celebrated in Knoxville, it has been both, at the same time. It’s a challenge to consider a time when Christmas wasn’t commercialized. In Knoxville at least, that time may never have existed.

America ignored and sometimes banned Christmas. Protestant fundamentalists didn’t like Christmas because it was a mass—it was Catholic and foreign. It’s not scriptural, and seemed to fold in pagan elements of scaring away the darkness of winter. (Don’t like “Holidays”? In the 1890s, Knoxvillians acknowledged its pagan roots, often calling it “the Saturnalia.”)

But with Catholic immigration coinciding with the massive popularity of a book by Charles Dickens, America finally embraced Christmas, and did so in large part by making it secular.

America likes to think of itself as religious, but most American “Christmas carols” that have made it into the holiday canon—since “Jingle Bells” in the 1850s—don’t allude to a baby in a manger. If you look at a list of 50 beloved Christmas songs, you’ll see a combination of European religious songs and American secular songs. Many, perhaps most of America’s carols, are love songs, several of them written for Broadway shows and Hollywood movies.

Few if any of the old European Christmas carols are romantic. I don’t know what that means.

If “Happy Holidays” is on the upswing, Ngram also proves the greeting “Merry Christmas” appears in print now more than ever before in human history. Everybody should be happy. Count this as my holiday wish that you are.

Jack Neely
Contributing Editor & Writer | jack@knoxhistoryproject.org |

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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