Notice to all trick-or-treaters: It is hereby forbidden, on orders of the Propriety Police, to use the phrase "Happy Halloween!" today.
Halloween, you see, is short for All Hallows' Eve, the night before All Saint's Day (Nov. 1), when Catholics pay homage to the souls of the faithful departed the dead who've gone to heaven. (Nov. 2 is All Souls' Day, dedicated to the dead in Purgatory, doing time while their sins are cleansed.) It is not, as Satan proclaimed on South Park last week, a day for the devil. It's the day for those with the moral strength to reject the devil's seductions and escape eternal damnation. Nor is Halloween, in its religious sense, a time for witches, bats and rats, or eight-year-old girls dolled up in whorehouse chic. Invoking ghosts, maybe. Beelzebub and Britney Spears, no.
All Saints' Day is important to observant Catholics; it's one of the six Holy Days of Obligation (which, when I was growing up, meant: go to Mass or go to hell). On the Church calendar, it is every bit as much a religious feast as Christmas.
So if you are one of those sensitive folks afraid to risk upsetting non-Christians by saying "Merry Christmas," and instead wish them a "Happy Holiday" and what holiday would that be, I wonder? then the salutation "Happy Halloween" should be just as incendiary. Today, to avoid offense, you'd better say, "Happy Holideen!"
And while we're at it: Valentine's Day. It's a Catholic saint's feast sorry, off limits, at least to those who won't say "Merry Christmas. My suggestion: "Happy Holintine's Day."
But we shouldn't stop at those days sacred to Catholics and other Christians. The Greeks, Romans and ancient Northern tribes so revered their gods that they named every day of the week after them (Sunday for the sun god, Monday for the moon god, Tuesday for the Nordic god Tyr, Wednesday for the Germanic god Wodin, Thursday for Thor or (the equivalent of Jupiter), Friday for the German goddess Friga (Venus) and Saturday for the Roman god Saturn. Five of the first six months of the year honored various gods (Janus, Mars, Maia, Juno) and religious rituals (the period of purification known as februum). Julius and Augustus Caesar, gods of the Empire, got their own months, after which the Romans ran out of inspiration, or deities, and designated the last third of the year with numerals: the 7th (September), 8th (October), 9th (November) and 10th (December) months.
In our secular age, though, we needn't show obeisance to other cultures. So no mention of any days of the week, please, and all months are they that must not be named until that lovely, unimpeachably secular holiday, Labor Day.
The downside to calendar correctness is that newspapers and websites won't be able to run datelines (like the one at the top of this story), at least through August. The upside: when you can't speak their names, every day's a holiday.
A TRUCE ON CHRISTMAS
In a few weeks, Halloween will be forgotten in the new seasonal tradition: arguing about Christmas. Courts will be asked to decide if carols can be sung in public schools, or a Creche displayed on Main Street. The pundits on Air America and Fox News Channel will flash their tempers in the debate over whether this is a secular or Christian country. The War on Christmas will raise more hackles than the war in Iraq. The Christmas spirit, by which I mean the nondenominational surrender to good will and good manners for a few weeks, will suffer. It wasn't supposed to be this way, but Christmas has become a divider, not a uniter.
I've been around long enough to see the politicizing of many things: haircuts, handshakes, the choice of cars and food and, of course, smoking. What used to be neutral activities either were ostracized or, at least, required a moment's delicate consideration before one said or did something.
That's what happened to the previous bland blandishment of "Merry Christmas." It was no more a declaration of religious belief than saying, "God bless you," when you heard a sneeze. (Remind me: is that still allowed?) Yet in the nagging belief that an invocation of the holiday might upset some people, usually referred to as "our Jewish friends," the phrase morphed into "Happy holiday" or "Happy holidays" those days presumably being Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year's Day. Problem solved, with no offense.
What the "Happy Holidays" crowd didn't realize was that not saying "Merry Christmas" was as annoying to traditionalists as saying it was to non-Christians. The debate had little to do with belief; it was about people's fond, perhaps fanciful, memories of Christmases past.
In my youth, America may or may not have had a Christian culture, but it surely had a Christmas culture. The choosing and decorating of the tree, the buying and wrapping (and, for the kids, the opening) of presents, the candy canes and mistletoe, the turkey dinner that reconvened a scattered family these were the elements of a merry Christmas for most Americans. They may have been raised in beliefs they no longer held; but though the dogma eroded, the social traditions held firm.
Most everyone, Christian or not, acknowledged these traditions. Jewish merchants decked the stores with trees and Santas, while Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley helped define the Christmas feeling with movies and music. "White Christmas," "A Christmas Song," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" who wrote these songs? The same people responsible for most of the great pop music of the early and mid-20th century: Jews. In 1964, when Phil Spector produced a great album of seasonal tunes sung by his house performers (the Crystals, the Ronettes, etc.), he didn't call it the Holiday Album. It was A Christmas Gift for You, and it ended with Spector himself dewily intoning a Christmas wish, backed by violins sawing away at "Silent Night."
Spector and other showbiz Jews hadn't been converted to Christianity, like Saul on the road to Tarsus. Their year-end tributes simply recognized that Christmas had already made its transition from holy day to holiday. It had become fully secularized, into a time of genial sentiment and credit-card debt none of which had any direct connection to the birth of somebody's Savior.
For decades thereafter, I was unconditionally with Spector and Irving Berlin, on the "Merry Christmas" side of the debate until the last few years, when some evangelicals and their media handmaidens made a big hairy deal about the meaning of Christmas. Like the stern secularists, they got it wrong too, insisting that Christmas was primarily a religious feast. Earlier, I was being a tad facetious about Halloween, but the professional Christians are dead serious. They want "Merry Christmas" to mean "Join with me in honoring the one true Redeemer."
All this holy haggling puts me in a decidedly unfestive mood. So here are my final proscriptions on Christmas. Born-agains: if you want to emphasize the religious aspect of Dec. 25, you must pronounce Christmas "Christ Mass." And to you Scrooges, defiant against a hundred years of amiable American tradition: if you can't say "Merry Christmas," fine. But don't take the day off.
Till then, Happy Holideen, everyone!