Merry Christmas. There, I said it, and I meant it, too.

You may tell me Merry Christmas in return, if you please. Or you can say Happy Holidays. That's an efficient little phrase, compressing best wishes for a whole range of events into one snappy alliterative package. Just don't tell me Happy Holidays because you worry that saying Merry Christmas to a Jew will cause him to melt into the floor like the witch at the end of "The Wizard of Oz."Here's the thing about Christmas: It's an American holiday as well as a religious one. To many people, it involves a deep spiritual meaning. To many others, it involves a day off and food and family and presents. And to a lot of us there is some overlap between those two meanings, and I say us because as a sentient being who lives in the diverse successor culture to Christendom, the philosophy if not the theology of Christianity, along with the commercial and celebratory rituals of its big December holiday, are an ineluctable and welcome part of my life. Scrooge, school vacations, eggnog, old Coke commercials, the giant Santa at Friendly Center, and a midnight Mass my wife and I once attended at Notre Dame de Paris all coexist peacefully with my own beliefs and practices.

There seems to be a basic human need for a holiday in the winter, to mark the good news that the sun has rethunk its schedule and will soon start putting in longer hours again. Christmas itself is almost certainly not the historical birthday of Jesus, but a festival grafted onto the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. If you want to wish me a happy Saturnalia, I'm down with that, too.

You know what I don't like so much? When people say Happy Hanukkah when they really mean Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, especially this year, when Hanukkah ended a while ago, but in general because Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas and there's no need to pretend that it is. There is no such thing as a Hanukkah bush, for example. It's a relatively minor holiday celebrating a military victory that happened 165 years before the event marked by Christmas. But if you do say Happy Hanukkah to me, I will take it in the right spirit and not lecture you about military history and the hierarchy of Jewish holidays. I will just say, Thank You, and maybe wish you a Happy Hanukkah, too.

I know people mean well by not saying Merry Christmas, that they are trying to be inclusive and kind, and that they get called politically correct for their trouble by people for whom inclusive and kind are curse words. But when I hear people hesitating to say Happy Thanksgiving, which I hear more frequently each year, it seems that we are moving from politeness to meaninglessness.

At least we have not taken things to the extremes found in the Boston of the 1600s, where stern Christian colonists banned by law the celebration of Christmas. And even when it wasn't illegal, Christmas was not always a big deal in this country. Congress did not recess for Christmas Day 1789, the first year of the new Constitution, and it wasn't a federal holiday until 1870.

Just because I'm OK with acknowledging the existence of a major holiday and wishing merriness upon all people does not indicate the following: that I want our secular government to fund religious displays; that I want to hear sappy watered-down Christmas music everywhere I go, starting in mid-November; that I want to eat fruitcake or read a long letter about your perfect life (pictures of the kids and dogs are most welcome); that I want to convert; that I want you to do anything other than have a very pleasant day in whatever manner suits you best.

You call tell me what you want to tell me. Merry Christmas has a ring to it.

Oh, and Happy New Year, too.

\ Edward Cone (www.edcone.com, efcone@mindspring.com) writes a column for the News & Record most Sundays.

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