Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas and the Spirit of Individualism in America

"Merry Christmas"
and the spirit of individualism in America
Stan Williams, Ph.D.

During this Christmas Season, more than others in recent past, I’ve noticed the onslaught of public sector officials to rewrite history and the fundamental reason we take off work this time of year. To some of those whom we elect or appoint to positions of authority, the separation of church and state has become life’s obsession. No longer is it Merry Christmas, but Happy Holidays, or Season’s Greetings. We’ve even seen this revisionist shift in Christmas Cards (ah, excuse me, Holiday Cards) from otherwise well-meaning Christians, including the White House.
But this just makes sense to me. At least it is consistent with America’s history of protesting and maniacal obsession with individualism. In America, the land of the free, we should be free to think and conclude whatever we want (ah, excuse me, that should be “whatever ME want”). The reality and truth of history, or the reason for the season, is no match for individualism.
This is an interesting twist on the concept of democracy, or the rule of the majority, especially when our attention, with the fight for democracy in Iraq, is so often a front-page news item. Of course, we have never lived in a pure democracy, but rather a democratic republic. Yet the democratic principles are still on the books. That is, the will of the majority should take precedence and not the will of the minority and surely not the will of the individual. Although that too is changing.
We give lip service to democratic principles because we believe that there is some truth in what the majority believe, hold dear, and embrace as truth. Underneath the concept of democracy and our fundamental pursuit of happiness is the Biblical concept that God has written His Divine conscience on all of our hearts in the form of a natural law that keeps our minds rooted in reality the way gravity keeps our feet rooted on Earth.
Democratic principles and our institutional sense of right and wrong brings me back to the importance of the meaning of words. Words have etymologies, or a history of where they came from and why they are used. Words express a culture's remembrance of truth through a default sort of democratic principle. Words are not voted on in a polling booth, but are imbued in the rules of language by the use of the majority. As time and events shape a culture’s identity, so words change to reinforce what is learned and what should be remembered. Certain words change in subtle ways and take on new, but not always more truthful, meanings. Unfortunately, our culture’s obsession to remember history in certain ways drives the move to change, not just the meaning of the words, but to change the actual words as well. Thus, we are in the midst of changing from “Merry Christmas” to “Season’s Greetings.” Even “Happy Holidays” is being discouraged because the term Holidays is a permutation of the original phrase “Holy Days.” And while the term Holy means to be “separated from,” and individuals in America just love to be “separate” (it has a distinct, adventurous connotation don’t you know)... few Americans want to be identified with the institutional church that repressively declared what days were to be holy and celebrated “apart” from our everyday, secular lives.
But this is to be expected in America. Specifically, it is to be expected because “Merry Christmas” is itself a permutation, and shift from history, and from reality. “Merry Christmas” is the perfect idiom for America, the land of the free, the brave, and the individual. “Merry Christmas” sounds safe today, but it’s entomology points to King Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy, and the British Parliament's subsequent Penal Laws that were also successfully applied in parts of the American Colonies.
If you’re unfamiliar with that part of British and American history here's a synopsis. The Act of Supremacy (1534) and the Penal Laws (beginning in 1559 and continuing for centuries) were successful attempts to erase a part of history and suppress the roots of Western religious culture, replacing them with a protest against institutionalism. These legislated acts established the King of England as supreme head of the Christian Church and outlawed the evil practice of Catholicism with exile or death. Never mind that a few years earlier (1521) Henry VIII was declared "Fidei Defensor" (Defender of the Faith) by the Pope for defending the Catholic Sacraments against Martin Luther's rebuff, and never mind that to this day the initials F.D. appear on all British coins to celebrate that fact. The Act of Supremacy was the ultimate protest and helped to reinforce the concept of "Protestantism" as a powerful word ladened with historical meaning. As much as the Act of Supremacy established the British Monarchy as an institution, it was ironically the ultimate act of individualism — the supreme act of a King to press his individual will on an entire culture and force it to forget its roots and change its religious practice under penalty of death. Two hundred years later, this cultural embrace of individualism would create quite a problem for the British Monarchy when America wanted to be separate, and take individualism to the next level. But at the time being a protestor against institutional authority was very popular.
And so it is that the phrase "Merry Christmas" carries on this protesting tradition to shroud our roots in fog. In an etymological protesting sort of way "Merry Christmas" might remind us how a woman and a man put their individualism aside and obeyed the greatest institution of the Universe. "Merry Christmas" should remind us that the individual is very important to God, but only when that individual obeys God. But "Merry Christmas" doesn't do that very well, unless you strip away its protesting artifacts and go back to the original words. There you will find three words that were the focus of this most holy of days: Mary, Christ, and Mass. For it is in the Mass that we remember Mary's obedient "yes" to life, and Christ's obedient "yes" to death. It is at Christmas, in the Christ Mass, that we celebrate the incarnation and the selfless cooperation between God and a woman that made salvation from individualism and self-importance possible.
Words have meaning... and, unfortunately, "Merry Christmas" doesn't say it all.