Calling Christmas Christmas

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It has always been our custom on Language Log to adhere to lexicographical verisimilitude in referencing manual excavation equipment.

Yes, we call a spade a spade. A snow shovel, a snow shovel. And we call Christmas "Christmas".

In December 2005, when I was living in Massachusetts, Congress started using "holiday tree" as the official name of the traditional Christmas tree at the Capitol, and Jerry Falwell (remember him?) actually managed to make a newsworthy kerfuffle about this unnecessary piece of terminological nervousness being a sign of creeping secularism (you can read about it in "Christmas trees and holiday trees").

I'm about as secular as a person could reasonably be, but not secular enough to grumble about other people's enjoyment of what they regard as the birthday celebration for their spiritual savior. From my kitchen here in Edinburgh right now, I can hear the bell of Broughton St. Mary's Church calling the flock in for the Christmas morning service, and it doesn't make me bristle. And I don't mind the huge Norwegian Christmas tree that is always erected on The Mound behind the Scottish National Gallery (a gift from Hordaland in Norway in memory of close ties during the Second World War) being called a Christmas tree. The nativity scenes put up here and there annoy me to the same extent as the menoras in some windows, which is to say, absolutely not at all.

The Christmas Eve carol service from King's College Cambridge, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, is worth hearing by anyone who appreciates high-quality choral music, and if some public funds are used to get the outside broadcast trucks to Cambridge and the mikes set up, I say good, spend it. The BBC's short sermon each morning, "Thought For The Day", studiously circulates through Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Islam, so determined are they to be eclectic in their spiritual uplift. I disappear into the shower rather than hear the platitudes, but I'm not inclined to campaign for removing them from the airwaves. Considering that the UK actually is a theocracy (the reigning monarch is both head of state and head of the uniquely established church that the state recognizes), it's all pretty relaxed and inclusive and not worth a serious person's protest time.

Of course, if you're a long-time Language Log reader you're probably thinking about how I lashed out at Thought For The Day when they put on a speaker who told outright lies about the text frequency of adjectives in political speech as opposed to scientific prose. True, I protested vociferously about the claims concerning scientific prose, and then I protested again the next day in a Part 2 about the claims concerning political speeches. But that was (as Tessio says in The Godfather) only business. It wasn't the fact of the speaker being a minister of religion that got up my nose, it was the fact of yet another person in the media thinking that when it came to language they could just make stuff up. That bugged me, as always. Give me a four-minute sermon each morning if you feel you should, but don't tell me things about language that are the opposite of the truth, or Language Log will make rhetorical mincemeat out of you. We do that. It's our métier.

But I'm not irritated today, on Christmas Day, and I certainly don't need it renamed out of sensitivity to my secularity. Kind friends and electronic acquaintances are sending me much-appreciated greetings messages (some of them nervously prefaced by "I don't know whether you do Christmas, but…") because they know it's my first Christmas in twenty years without my much-loved philosopher partner Barbara Scholz, who died seven months ago. It is very different, and very quiet. But it will be all right.

Edinburgh is wonderful in December: on Princes Street there is a funfair complete with a giant Ferris wheel and large rotating devices for whirling kids round on chains so that they squeal, and a German market selling gifts and sausages and cakes and scarves and hats. The weather ranges from the mildly atrocious to the utterly unforgivable — dark and rainy and windy and cold — but that is an essential part of the place. Barbara and I moved here direct from Santa Cruz, California, and we resolved that one thing we would never do was to spend time grumbling about the weather here. In Edinburgh you have a fabulous range of things to do, and the cultural attractions of a compact and elegant national capital, and an extraordinary intellectual life, but you have to be tough to take weather like this.

Or, for that matter, to survive the loss of a partner who was the center of your life. You have to find out empirically whether you're tough enough for such things. I'm finding out that I'm probably tough enough. Thanks to all of you who sent me good wishes. I'm very grateful. Happy Christmas.

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