Saturday, December 24, 2005

By All Means Be Merry

One small benefit of this idiotic "war on Christmas" controversy is that I've been noticing the trite expression "Merry Christmas" much more than I used to, and I find myself feeling very appreciative of its quaint charm. Think about it--"merry" is one of those words that's almost never used any more except in an archaic context, like "Robin Hood and His Merry Men" for example. Try to use it in a sentence and you're practically forced to adopt a literary style redolent of some previous century ("It was a merry time, forsooth"). Yet unlike some other near-archaisms (such as its one-time synonym "gay"), the meaning of the word is still unchanged and unmistakeable. (We all know about the interesting direction the meaning of "gay" ended up taking.)

The best thing about "merry" is its frivolity. The right-wing-media crusade to force everyone to say "Merry Christmas" would be even worse if the idiomatic greeting were something like "Holy Nativity" or "Blessed Yuletide" or something equally solemn. The words "Merry Christmas" suggest laughter. They conjure up a Dickensian image of songs being sung loudly and not very well in a pub or parlor accompanied by plenty of adult beverages (preferably over-sweet ones not drunk at any other time of year), tables full of food, kids outdoors sledding, skating, and throwing snowballs at one another, and adults engaging in mild bawdry involving mistletoe and still more adult beverages.

"Making merry" isn't something you do in church, nor does it involve the paying of expensive tribute to the capitalist system by buying jewelry or Nintendo games or flat-screen TVs. It's about mindless, goofy, playful pleasures--the kind of thing modern Republicans normally have little use for. Which helps to explain why the Puritans hated Christmas and the "merriment" associated with it and actually outlawed Christmas celebrations in Boston and other places where they held sway. It's hard to picture that sourpuss Bill O'Reilly being merry, isn't it?

There's a saying attributed (perhaps inaccurately) to William Blake which goes, "Fun is good, but mirth is better, and better than both is joy." That seems to put mirth (which of course is a cognate of "merry" and equivalent to "merriment") in just about the right place: something more spontaneous and energetic than fun (which can be forced; hence the expression "Are we having fun yet?") but less exalted and spiritual than joy (which has transcendent implications, as in the title of C.S. Lewis's autobiography Surprised by Joy). There's a place for all three, but in our modern world mirth is the one that's most neglected.

So by all means have a merry Christmas. Live a little. Kick up your heels. Especially if you haven't done it in a year or more. After all, this is the time.

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