The specificity of good wishes

I ran across this quotation this morning, with which I’d like to agree if it didn’t irritate me so much:

…When a festival goes as it should, men receive something that is not in human power to give. This is the by now almost forgotten reason for the age-old custom of wishing one another well on great festivals. What are we really wishing our fellow men when we send them ‘best wishes for Christmas’? Health, enjoyment of each other’s company, thriving children, success—all these things, too, of course. We may even—why not?—be wishing them a good appetite for the holiday meal. But the real thing we are wishing is the ‘success’ of the festive celebration itself, not just its outer forms and enrichments, not the trimmings, but the gift that is meant to be the true fruit of the festival: renewal, transformation, rebirth. Nowadays, to be sure, all this can barely be sensed behind the trite formula: ‘Happy Holidays.’

Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity (St. Augustine’s Press)

I haven’t read the book from which the passage is taken and know almost nothing of Josef Pieper, so my criticism may be less of the author than of the person who quoted him, but the jab against “Happy Holidays” seems a tad overwrought — as if a two-word cliché constituted a magic formula for the bestowal of divine grace, or were meant to be. And it fits far neatly into a certain kind of good-old-days thinking that I will admit I find tiresome. Back in the days when people wished a Merry Christmas to strangers over a store counter — say, a quarter century before Pieper wrote this in in 1999, which is just about the earliest reach of my memory — did they really have all that in mind? Renewal, transformation, rebirth? I wouldn’t venture to give people quite that much credit, even when the store counter was replaced by a folding table at my small-town church bazaar, even when they might have had the necessary theological grounding. Certainly it’s possible to pack all that meaning into “Merry Christmas,” and perhaps that’s what people ought to have meant, but I don’t believe they’d thought it through quite so carefully.

Then again, the possibility of meaning is not something to be lightly dismissed. “Merry Christmas” may be a sincere and thoughtful wish for renewal, transformation, rebirth, which an equally thoughtful recipient may unpack later on; “happy holidays” almost certainly cannot be. I have trouble seeing a more serious or complicated meaning behind “happy holidays” than “have a good time, enjoy yourself.” Not that there’s anything wrong with wishing that people enjoy themselves, of course, but there are other, ultimately more important things one might wish for people, and it’s difficult if not impossible to pack them into that phrase.

That loss of potential meaning (if not actual meaning) bothers me far more than any question of what festival people may or may not be celebrating. The problem isn’t that people celebrate other festivals; the problem is that we can’t engage each other with more specificity. I’ve noticed recently that even “have a nice day” is increasingly replaced with “have a good one,” as if the specificity of having to enjoy this day, today, assumes too much about the stranger’s own needs and desires. We’re trying not to offend, but we’re losing opportunities for connection. The less specific the words, it seems to me, the more inchoate and impersonal the wish, because (we humans being generally a lazy bunch) the wisher isn’t forced to shape the wish into concrete form to address directly the actual human being before him. And the recipient knows that, and takes it at face value. If the wish was heartfelt, nobody but the wisher will ever know. Religious diversity isn’t the core issue, although the assumption of religious diversity does make it harder to engage a stranger with any specificity, because, especially at this time of year, it reduces the number of assumptions anyone can make about anyone else. And of course the shift in language is the effect of far broader changes in the culture — but it cements those changes, by limiting our communication and our thinking, and thus even our perception of one another.

I reread A Christmas Carol this month, aloud to my daughter, and it seems that even Dickens’ festive Londoners don’t seem to know quite why they’re so happy or what they’re wishing one another when they say “Merry Christmas.” But it doesn’t seem to matter; they are, for a few days at least, making a sincere effort to engage one another as fellow human beings who share an existence together. Perhaps the phrase helps them do that because it gives them one specific thing that they share, and that one thing becomes a hook on which to hang all the rest. Could they engage one another so sincerely with “have a good one” or even “happy holidays”? Possibly. But I don’t think they would. We certainly don’t. It’s possible for people to engage one another’s fellow humanity without a hook to hang it on, but we rarely do. Part of what it is to be human, it seems, is that we need the hook.

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