Isn’t it great to be able to share those words freely again, after the long, dark years when we could only blink them to one another in Morse code or pass them furtively on slips of torn fast-food napkins, lest jackbooted thugs of the deep state kick down our doors and drag us to the nearest FEMA concentration camp?
What can I say but: Thank you, President Trump. Restoring our right to speak the phrase openly is yet another campaign promise on which you have bravely delivered. As you with grand pauses informed the Values Voter Summit in October: “Guess what? We’re . . . saying . . . ‘Merry . . . Christmas’ . . . again!”
The so-called war on Christmas has been a staple of conservative media for years, the Fox News version of Hermey the Elf and Yukon Cornelius. Like the bare-breasted women in his tabloid newspapers, it’s proof that Rupert Murdoch will stop at nothing to gin up a crowd — unless it involves spending money on actual newsgathering. The drama of big government trying to steal Christmas (Ayn Rand meets Dr. Seuss) never fails to stir the blood of elderly libertarians.
In fairness, maybe people haven’t been saying “Merry Christmas” inside Fox News headquarters. Given all the sexual harassment alleged to go on there, it doesn’t sound like a very joyful place. But in the actual world, I’ve never noticed a shortage of merries, Christmases or the two of them together. Think of “The Christmas Song,” which surely is playing somewhere in America every moment of every day from Thanksgiving to the end of December. And every time Nat King Cole comes to the last line, there they are: “Although it’s been said many times, many ways: Merry Christmas to you!”
Not even bleeped.
Then there’s the figgy pudding song: “We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas . . .”
The Judy Garland song: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas . . .”
The Jose Feliciano song: “I wanna wish you a merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart.”
Even the song about bells where the choir can scarcely keep up with all the “merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas.”
Year in and year out, we hear the words at shopping malls, grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants. I don’t know how the president has missed it. Do the rich cosmopolitans of Mar-a-Lago prefer “Joyeux Noel”?
Christmas ought to be something nobody exploits to drive us apart. It’s such an all-American celebration: inclusive, optimistic, mongrel and forgiving — the epitome of too-muchness and puppylike enthusiasm. The English writer Charles Dickens may be, as Hollywood insists this year, “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” But Americans took the day and made it a season, then stretched the season clear across autumn. We deck not just halls but entire houses in dancing lights with synchronized soundtracks. We dress our cars in reindeer antlers and our families in matching holiday pajamas.
Have we made Christmas a wee bit vulgar? Only in the original sense of the word. America’s Christmas is something common, that is, available to all.
Which is how it should be, for the Christmas story is about erasing divisions and distinctions and borders and walls. A Jewish baby is born in Palestine in abject poverty and hailed as a king. An unwed teenager becomes the ideal mother, and her baffled boyfriend the model of manhood. Angels from heaven choose for their audience a scraggly band of sheepherders with dirty hands and the stink of work upon them. And relentless foreigners, lacking proper papers, pursue a beacon of liberty, traveling through the night with a light from above.
You may recognize those last words as a snippet from Irving Berlin, the Russian boy who wrote “God Bless America,” the Jewish songwriter who dreamed a “White Christmas.” So very American.
Mel Tormé, co-creator of “The Christmas Song,” with its roasting chestnuts and nipping frost, was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants; another Jewish artist, Robert L. May, came up with the story of a little reindeer with a bright, red nose.
Our Christmas comes from everywhere. From a parish priest in a German village (“Silent Night”); from a Puerto Rican virtuoso, blind at birth (“Feliz Navidad”); from a glamorous New Yorker whose genome connects to Africa and Ireland and Venezuela (“All I Want for Christmas Is You”). Frank Capra, son of Sicily, convinces us annually that “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Animator Bill Melendez, from Mexico’s Sonora, gathers the Peanuts gang around their scrawny tree.
I could go on, but you get the idea. A spirit of togetherness and equality is essential to America’s Christmas and rarely more needed than now. Words don’t matter: Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, even Good Festivus, if you prefer. And God bless us, every one.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.