December 02, 2005

Christmas trees and holiday trees

Both here in Boston and at the Capitol in Washington DC, the annual Christmas tree is being officially referred to as a "holiday tree". And Jerry Falwell has immediately jumped on this as an issue for the Christian right (the people that, as Tom Wolfe points out, we used to just call Christians): he thinks secularists are "trying to steal Christmas". Well, I'm firmly for inclusiveness, and firmly against both religious bigotry and hostility to religion, and I see nothing sensible going on here. Beam me up, Scotty. This shouldn't be a religious issue at all. What is supposed to be the rational basis for objecting to the term "Christmas tree" as a name for the evergreens that are traditionally erected and bedecked with lights at this time of year? That the etymology of Christmas has "Christ" and "mass" in it? You can't expunge religion by switching to "holiday": the etymology of holiday has "holy" in it! And the etymology of the word "Saturday" has the name of the Roman god Saturn in it, but that doesn't mean we should rename Saturday to avoid offending those who honor it as their sabbath, by implying that we honor the pagan gods of ancient Rome. We don't call it that to honor Saturn. Nor do we honor the Norse goddess Freya (who rides into battle on a boar called Hildisvin the battle-swine, by the way) when we call Islam's holy day "Friday". (Notice, in all of these cases phonological change has wrecked the similarity that used to obtain: [kris] doesn't sound anything like [kraist], for example.)

As everyone knows, open commercial promotion of Christmas starts before Hallowe'en (October 31) in this country, and pretty soon it's jingle bells and holly and ivy and silent night in every mall in the land. There's nothing religious about this harmless Christmas nonsense, and it's good for the economy, and you can't conceal which traditional festival is being celebrated. Yes, I say that what President Bush lit up at the White House yesterday is a Christmas tree, and — for once I agree with him and Laura — we should call it that. You see a lot of Christmas trees in America in December, just like you see stars of David and menoras in windows of Jewish homes, and during Ramadan you see a lot of Muslims checking their watches near sundown to see if they can grab something to eat yet... This is a religiously diverse country, with a bunch of well-established holidays, some of which have religious significance for some people. Deal with it. When we break out the eggnog in Language Log Plaza the week after next, I'll be going to — and calling it — the third annual Language Log Christmas party.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 2, 2005 10:30 AM