Hesitant greetings

December 21, 2007|By Daniel Rippe

"I hope you have a Merry Chri - uh, merry ... I mean, um ... merriment, yes, that's it. I'm wishing you merriment of, uh... this cold, er ... time period!"

Big toothy grin as I flush with embarrassment.

What is it about this time of the year that makes expressing good wishes so difficult? Many people are celebrating their religious holy days. Others are going through the motions of celebration - materialistic consuming led by commercial sensationalism - appearing to observe some religious or secular event without actually having any feeling about doing so. And still many, many more are celebrating for no particular reason at all, other than it's this time of year.

So, how does one sum up all that in a simple greeting? "Merry Christmas, or Happy Hanukkah, or Soulful Kwanzaa, or Sexy Solstice, or Doleful Depression, or Amazing Avoidance, or Wonderful Whatever ... especially to YOU!"

No, it simply can't be done.

Our desire to be inclusive, politically correct and sincere without stepping on anyone's toes can turn our heartfelt expressions of goodwill into so much generic blather. Consider some intraseasonal spoken regards for this uncomfortable wintry part of our calendar - ranging from the commonplace to the fanciful - and what's wrong with each.

"Season's Greetings!" Probably the first saying invented to sidestep religion, this ends up being so secular that it could be construed as pagan, given its emphasis on nature's seasons. Though it's entirely appropriate anytime, why don't we ever hear this in May or June?

"Happy Holidays!" Oops, you mentioned "holidays," as in holy days. Is Kwanzaa holy? Is the solstice? Not appropriate for atheists or agnostics, this also might not be appreciated by those who build a fire in a circle of stones. Better: "Happy holi- or anti-holi-days!"

"Winter Wishes!" Pleasant sounding, but what the heck would they be? I hope you like the weather? May this be over soon?

"Blessed ... " CUT! Sorry, disqualified. Because "blessed" by whom, or according to what belief? If you accidentally start a greeting like this, think quick and change it to something like "Bles - Ble - Blustery winds of joy to you!" Then pretend you're cold and hurry away.

"Peace!" Now, this has possibilities - that is, if you're talking about peace not in the religious-prayer, goodwill-toward-men sense, but in the I'm-not-advocating-war (except-our-country's-currently-justifie d-offenses-around-the-world) sense. But let's face it, it's basically something of a lie or a nongreeting unless you are actually doing something to stop the war besides speaking this word.

"Joy to You, Now and Year-Round!" Fine - then say it year-round.

"Hesitant Greetings, Hoping to be Appropriate and to Your Liking!" Wimp! Why not go all the way and use "hopefully" as a sentence adjective?

"Bold Salutations, with Disregard for Your Personal Feelings, but Shouted with Good Intentions (Therefore I'm Not Responsible for Your Reaction or for Being a Thoughtless Dolt)!" OK, but guess what? Good intentions don't excuse bad behavior.

All this awkwardness about holiday greetings makes one wonder: Are holidays "holy" anymore? Or are they just some days that some people celebrate? Has the word holy lost its meaning, or perhaps even become its opposite through back-formation, like some of our finer words over the years?

In my 30-year-old Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, the first few definitions of holy are sacred and godly in tone. Back in 1977, "holy day" was the primary definition of "holiday." But the secondary meaning, "a day on which one is exempt from work, specifically in commemoration of an event," threatens to take over in our ever more greeting-card-like language.

Perhaps this new definition could be our guide in formulating greetings:

"Wishing You Exultation in Your Exemption from Work!" Or this: "May you have a Celebratory Commemoration of an Event!"

Now I think we're getting somewhere!

Daniel Rippe is a musician and writer living in Baltimore. His e-mail is daniel.rippe@hotmail.com.

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