The Holiday That Dare Not Speak Its Name

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Editor’s Note:  The following column appeared in The Norfolk Boomerang on November 30, 2007.  It is republished here with permission.

It’s getting to be that time of year again. You know the one I mean.

You better. Because if you don’t, I’m not sure I can tell you.

There’s a certain date in late December that all of us are aware of but aren’t supposed to mention directly.  It’s not polite.

In fact, we’re all learning a new language just to get around the problem. People think one thing, and say another, after making a quick translation in their head. Then the people who are listening catch on. Oh, you mean …

Now, nobody actually comes out and tells us that we can’t say the word. That would be impolite, too. But gradually we’re getting the message. It’s just not sensitive to refer to this event by its actual name.

So what is it? Well, let’s be careful. We never know who might be reading. Let’s just call it a holiday.

Or maybe Holiday. It must be a proper noun, because think of all its otherwise unadorned uses as an adjective. Holiday gifts, Holiday cards, Holiday wreaths, Holiday shopping. Have yourself a good Holiday.

It really needs a capital H, because otherwise maybe somebody will think we’re out looking for a Washington’s Birthday tree. Or perhaps a Memorial Day card? Merry Labor Day! Sure hope I make it home in time for Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year.

Whatever it is, it inspires a lot of advertising. At least I think it does. The ads never seem to get around to mentioning what it is they’re associating with. But some of them start by saying, “This Holiday …”

Now, it’s a little funny to have a specifier (this) followed by the least specific noun possible to refer to the thing itself (Holiday). But then, the advertisers figure we all know the language.

Or at least most of them do. Honda ran a television ad pitching car deals around this time last year. How do I recall one car ad among the dozens of ads we all see all the time? The announcer actually referred to the event by its proper name. It was the only television ad I saw last December that did, and it was so jarring it made an impression.

So that’s what it’s come to:  The word for the most famous state, federal, and religious holiday is so chic that if you’re daring enough to use it in public you stand out from the crowd.

It’s a puzzling situation for a newspaperman. Newspapers pride themselves on not using euphemisms. You never read a news story saying somebody “passed away,” for instance:  that person died. “Pass away” is an attempt to soften an ugly fact. That’s what a euphemism does.

So why does this thing need a euphemism?

I know, not everyone believes in it:  the celebration of the birth of a baby in Bethlehem of Judea about 2,000 years ago whose followers worship him as God. It’s wrong to assume that everyone you might meet is one of his followers.

One possible response to this point is:  So what?  The vast majority of people in this country do believe in him and celebrate his birth. Why should they have to act like a Hindu in Saudi Arabia?

But the argument needn’t ever get that far, because the point it attempts to refute is so silly.  What exactly about this nativity memorial is so offensive?  It’s about Jesus, of course, someone we don’t all agree on.  But also consider the trappings:  kindness, peace on earth, good will toward men, carols, holly, ivy, trees, wreaths, presents, hope for eternal salvation. Stop me when I get to the part that is so upsetting that the very feast day’s name cannot be used.

Perhaps by now you think you’ve figured out the topic of this little column. If so, here’s a little exercise that might relieve some tension and get you back in the spirit of the season.

Go find a quiet place where no one is. Look left; look right. Pause. Take a deep breath.

And say the word out loud.