In the Book of Judges, the Ephraimites had offended the Gileadites. For one thing, they had no use for the Gileadites’ leader, Jephthah, because he was an illegitimate son. (The irony of a “respectable” father and a prostitute mother was apparently lost on the Ephraimites.)
For another, the Ephraimites had failed to help the Gileadites – their fellow Israelites – defend themselves against the Ammonites.
To avenge themselves, the Gileadites captured the Jordan River’s fords and required all crossers to say “Shibboleth” – a linguistic trap for the Ephraimites, who could only manage “Sibboleth,” pegging them as the enemy.
“Merry Christmas” seems on its way to becoming a modern-day shibboleth. Some Christians respond curtly to generic wishes for joyful celebrations. One social-media meme states abruptly, “It’s not ‘Happy Holidays.’ It’s ‘Merry Christmas.’” Some even boycott businesses that don’t say the code words.
As a pushback against the apparently declining influence of Christianity in American culture, this phenomenon misses several marks:
• Christmas isn’t universal even among Christians. The observance wasn’t known in the early church and didn’t become widespread for many centuries. The Puritans – the folks who inspired our Thanksgiving – actually forbade it.
• Christmas was adapted from pagan cultures, not imposed upon them. It used what was already familiar to unbelievers to make the gospel more understandable – or at least more palatable – to them. Viewing Christmas as a religious line-in-the-sand reverses the kindness intended in that approach.
• The “Merry Christmas” measuring stick wrongly implies Christianity’s mission is cultural dominance. Ways Jesus described his church – sheep among wolves, salt and light, in the world but not of the world – picture his people not as a majority that must be conformed to but as a minority that cannot be ignored.
• Finally, and most obviously, the “Merry Christmas” shibboleth is simply ungracious. (I know; there’s no gracious way to say that.) There’s nothing merry – or Christ-like – about taking offense over a “Happy Holidays” greeting for a season that includes Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. I grew up with Christmas, then for several years did not observe it but later resumed what I hope is a circumspect celebration of its better elements. With that background I can affirm that snarkiness in response to either being wished or not being wished Merry Christmas does not make one’s faith more inviting to others.
So, Merry Christmas, y’all. And Happy Holidays, too.
Contact Daily Journal reporter Errol Castens at (662) 816-1282or firstname.lastname@example.org.