In 1942 Irving Berlin composed several songs for the movie, Holiday Inn. The most famous song from that movie is “White Christmas,” and it is the only song in the movie that is specifically about Christmas. However the first song in the movie is “Happy Holiday” which in the context of the movie is about New Year’s Day, as well as an introduction to the conceit of the film—that someone could run an inn that is only open for business 6 days a year, each of them a holiday. Still, this song that doesn’t mention anything Christmas-y at all has been considered a staple of Christmas music since the mid 1940s:
Happy holiday, happy holiday
While the merry bells keep ringing
May your ev’ry wish come true
Happy holiday, happy holiday
May the calendar keep bringing
Happy holidays to you
But one can’t credit Irving Berlin with the invention of the phrase, “Happy Holidays!” It’s been in use for more than 125 years, and was clearly not part of any attempt to secularize the holiday.
Most people point to Bill O’Reilly’s segment on December 7, 2004 about the so-called assault on Christmas as the origin of the myth. But you have to go much further than that, back to the 1920s, when in recurrent segment of industrialist Henry Ford’s newsweekly entitled “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem” which opined: “Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone’s Birth. People sometimes ask why 3,000,000 Jews can control the affairs of 100,000,000 Americans. In the same way that ten Jewish students can abolish the mention of Christmas and Easter out of schools containing 3,000 Christian pupils.” Notice that even 97 years ago the American rightwing was antisemitic.
I was not alive back when Ford and others were trying to use Christmas to inflame anti-Jewish sentiment, but by the time of my childhood in the 1960s, that notion (along with the John Birch Society’s theory that the United Nations and Communists were trying take the Christ out of Christmas) had soaked deep into the psyche of evangelical fundamentalists. Though it took slightly different forms. I’ve written before about how the various Baptist churches my family attended considered Santa Claus an anti-Christian emblem. Some churches banned Christmas trees from the sanctuary, because of their pagan origins. Poinsettias were allowed because popular myth was the the red leaves represented Christ’s blood. But many of the common symbols of the holiday were believed inappropriate for the church.
Which isn’t to say that they forbade you from decorating your home and a tree or Santa — there was just a clear distinction between the sacred meaning of the holy day and the more general public celebration of the holidays. Which is why some leaders of the Christian Right in the 60s and 70s started advocating that Christians should encourage businesses to use phrases such as Season’s Greetings and Happy Holidays precisely because all that commericialism shouldn’t be associated with Christ.
That’s right, there was a time when the very same sorts of people that today are foaming at the mouth about Starbucks’ holiday coffee cups not being sufficiently Christmas-y were asking businesses not to profane Christ’s name by labeling their products with the word Christmas.
The pendulum keeps swinging back and forth. It’s been popular across the political spectrum to lament the commercialization of Christmas for many years, for instance. But the funning thing is that this commercialization: the emphasis on exchanging gifts (specifically gifts for Children) are part of a puritanical push during the 19th Century to make the holiday family friendly. For most of its history, the Christmas season was associated with drinking and feasting and various kinds of wild partying. So the Victorians decided to wage a war on the previous forms of the holiday. Unlike the Puritans, who banned Christmas entirely when they set up their colonies in the U.S., the Victorian prudes at least understood that you couldn’t ban the celebration outright, but you could encourage people to observe it in a different way.
So the next time someone gripes about commercialization of Christmas, point out that little historical tidbit and watch their head explode.
I could ramble some more, but why not watch this video instead?
Adam Rules Everything- The Drunken, Pagan History of Christmas:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here