Ah, it’s the holidays. The season of happiness, joy, peace, buying frenzies, and vitriolic rants about lexical choices. For instance, some people froth at the mouth on seeing Xmas, presumably unaware that this comes from a longstanding Christian use of X to stand for Christ, representing not our letter x but the Greek letter chi (χ), which is the first letter of χρῑστός christos, which of course is the source of Christ. The abbreviation Xmas has been in use in English at least since the 1500s. (Other insertions of Greek characters into Christian symbology include the P with an x on its stem you see sometimes, taken from the first two letters of χρῑστός, and IHS, which is really a slight Latinization of IHΣ, which is short for IHΣOYΣ, which is IESOUS, i.e., Jesus.)
A current popular rant – one that has been popular for quite some time, in fact – is against happy holidays. “It’s Christmas!” people fume. “Call it Christmas! Wish people a Happy Hanukkah if they’re Jewish or a Happy Diwali if they’re Hindu or whatever, but let Christians have their holy days too!”
And a response sometimes made to that is, “Holiday is from holy day, so when you’re wishing people happy holidays you’re wishing them happy holy days! So what’s the prob, Bob?”
I’m going to aim for the middle of the fence on this, hoping I don’t get a picket up my butt. On the one hand, it’s perfectly reasonable for people who really celebrate Christmas as Christians to want to celebrate it as Christmas. At the same time, there are plenty of people who are enjoying the holiday season without any particular religious inclination – though the season does exist because of yule. Note that I said Yule: Christmas is, after all, a Christianization of a pre-existing pagan festival (Jesus was not in fact born in December 25 – actually probably sometime in April or September, depending on who you ask). Much of what constitutes Christmas now for most people has nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus: Christmas trees are a pagan holdover; Santa Claus is based as much on a pagan figure as on any Christian saint (St. Nicholas was not a jolly fat man who rode a sleigh and gave out gifts to all good children); the frenzy of gift giving has a connection to Christianity so tenuous as to be barely worthy of account, especially since it also connects to pagan customs. So the name hangs on, but Christmas is only really a Christian celebration for Christians. For all others the word has moved on, pretty much.
And so has the word holiday. Etymology is not a suitable guide to current meaning! I’ve mentioned at other times how throw and warp have changed places semantically over the course of English, and how silly comes from a word meaning “blessed” and nice from one meaning “ignorant”. I can also mention that one may take a vacation without vacating one’s residence (in fact, some people love to take a vacation day and stay at home all day). And in general we go on holidays for no religious purpose at all. Summer holidays from school? Nothing holy about that. And “bank holidays,” a term used officially in some places? Well, I guess if you worship money… but you can’t worship it as much on a bank holiday, because the banks are closed.
So while the December holidays are, by tradition, holly days (and, if you celebrate Hanukkah, possibly challah days), and if you despise commercialism you may find them to be hollow days, their existence as holidays does not depend on their being hallowed days – but their existence as holy days does. The term holy day has split apart from its progeny, holiday, precisely because of the semantic shift (some might say bleaching) of holiday. It is true that the Jewish High Holy Days (Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah) are sometimes called the High Holidays, but that’s a special usage, and not a universal one at that either.
But we can see that the word holiday has varying meanings and flavours – it can shift not just from person to person but even within the year for a given person. For Canadians, Victoria Day is a holiday, and we have various civic holidays (even without a state religion), but if you’re anywhere near Christmas – or it’s the current subject of discussion at whatever time of the year – the holidays means that time of year when you have lots of cinnamon-and-clove-flavoured stuff and lots of peppermint-flavoured stuff and extra amounts of sugar and fat and, if you are so inclined, extra alcohol (especially via eggnog), and yummy fruitcake unless you’re one of those strange Americans who believe that fruitcake is bad (I was truly gobsmacked when I first heard Americans insult fruitcake), and decorated trees, and Santa (by the way, anagrams are also meaningless as semantic indicators: there is no special reason that dog is God backwards anymore than that Santa anagrams Satan), and Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen and Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen and Rudolph and endless TV specials and and and and…
But, returning to holiday, outside the ambit of Christmas it does get various other flavours and associations: shootouts (Doc Holliday, he of the gunfight at the OK Corral), jazz (Billie Holiday), hotels (Holiday Inn, a chain named after a movie that introduced the world to the song “White Christmas” – which also became the name of the sequel movie), various other movies (including Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn), days off work, long weekends, summertime, quite a lot of different popular songs about different times of the year, and assorted other variously well-known people named Holiday, Holliday (such as Polly Holliday, the actress who made the line “Kiss my grits” famous), and even Halliday (a name known to linguists: M.A.K. Halliday, inventor of systemic functional linguistics). It’s a word with rather more vertical in its orthography than most: three ascenders and a dot, and a descender at the end – it looks to me like it’s more in the mood for a party than for lounging on the beach. It stays rather light: licking and tapping the tip of the tongue in the middle, with a soft breath to start and a smooth off-glide on its final diphthong.
It is, I think, a happy word, a word associated for the most part with happiness, and I wish everyone happy holidays (they’re still a couple of weeks ahead, but the season has started). And one way to keep them happy is not to get all atwist about lexical choices. Yes, yes, you could go on about them for a whole day, but at the end you’ve just lost a whole day. Take a holiday instead.