When I was in Rome 30 odd years ago with a toddler, we visited a laundromat in the Campo Dei Fiori every couple of days. ‘Buon giorno!’ the woman in charge would greet us. Then one day, she said instead, ‘Auguri!’ It took a bit of nutting out, but I realised that Easter was approaching, and her greeting was the equivalent of ‘Happy Easter!’ Literally, I’m guessing it means ‘Good wishes!’ No need to mention the festival that gives rise to the wish.
Here in Anglophone Australia we don’t have such a sweetly noncommittal greeting. My doctor, who has a mezuzah fixed to the doorpost of his surgery and wears a yarmulke, wished me a Happy Christmas the other day, and I didn’t know what to say in reply. Then I didn’t know what to say to his receptionist, who didn’t have any obvious signs of religious heritage.
I’ve heard people wish each other Happy Holidays, but that sounds like an awkward transplant from the US. ‘Seasons Greetings’ works fine in print, but it’s weird when spoken. Referring to the solstice just feels prissy and evasive – Christmas may originally have built on a Druidic celebration of the northern winter solstice but it’s part of the Christian tradition in its present forms.
I’ve been ruminating on what Christmas means to me. When I was little it was important to me that there was a baby in the middle of all the celebrations. Christmas was like a birthday, except that presents were given, not just to one special person, but to everyone. Unpacking that thought: if on someone’s birthday we celebrate the fact that they are alive, regardless of anything that they have done or endured since their birth, then at Christmas we celebrate all of us in the same way. And you know, in the crowd competing for attention at the fish market counter this morning, the mood was so amiable and generous, that it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that the often mentioned Christmas spirit is actually about something of the sort. Sure, some people see it as a sectarian event or a consumerist orgy, but I think for me its secular meaning is a celebration of our common humanity. The baby Jesus is a symbol of what Quakers call ‘that which is of God within each of us’, a formulation that an atheist like me, stuck for words, will accept as good enough.
When I tried to talk about this at dinner last night, the conversation became heated, so maybe I’m being controversial here. But Happy Christmas to my readers anyhow, and if you don’t celebrate it yourself for whatever reason, I’m still thrilled to share the planet with you and say Hi in the name of our humanity.