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What's so important about a name, anyway?

William Shakespeare is credited with coining the phrase "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." It has to do with "Romeo and Juliet." (Think back to that English Lit 101 you had to take.)

But, especially in this hyper sensitive day and age, names matter a lot. It's hard to believe that Washington D.C.'s pro football team's name is a derogatory term for Native Americans, and that their logo is a cartoonish stereotype.

"Know me by name" is another popular catch phrase these days. I think it refers to knowing people as the unique individuals they are, not just members of a particular set of humans.

So it seems clear names do mean something, despite what the Bard says.

So let's talk about holiday names, shall we?

Most of our American holiday names are very descriptive; they indicate what it is we are celebrating. New Year's Day is pretty simple, right? The Fourth of July offers the same sort of literal calendar reference, but there is more. We'll come back to that.

Mother's Day celebrates mothers, Veterans Day salutes veterans and Father's Day is set aside for dads. Easy enough. What do you do on Thanksgiving? Give thanks, of course.

With Memorial Day, most of us know we're memorializing someone, and for virtually everyone that someone is a military person who died doing his or her duty. Presidents' Day is fine, but which presidents?

For the foreigner, Memorial Day, Presidents' Day and the Fourth of July create a bit of a dilemma. In order to really understand what the holidays are all about, you need to have the background most of us grew up absorbing. It helps a little to know that the Fourth of July also is called Independence Day.

Labor Day has sort of the same issue. For most, it means the end of summer, and it doesn't really matter that the day celebrates the union movement in our country.

The whole name thing gets stickier when we move to religious holidays. Heck, we can't seem to even agree on how to spell Hanukkah (or Chanukah), much less expect people to know what it means. Passover is a little easier because it is literal, but to really understand it, you have to know the story from the Bible.

I know Muslims celebrate Ramadan, and I know it has something to do with fasting during the day, but I don't have a clue why it is called Ramadan. I'm guessing most of you don't either.

Christians can be just as obscure. Do you know why the day Jesus died is called Good Friday? I think I do, but not well enough to explain it to you.

And what does Easter mean? I contend it is the most important day on the calendar to Christians — the day of the Resurrection. But we don't call it Resurrection Day. Why is that?

Which brings us to the real reason for this column — Christmas.

Christmas has some of the attributes of the simpler holiday names. It states specifically what the day is about; the birth of Christ.

But it doesn't include all the other things the holiday has come to mean — Santa Claus, gift giving, good will towards men (and women), etc. And I've used this space before to decry the commercialization of Christmas (while I make my list and check it twice). That's sort of like saying Memorial Day is the beginning of summer.

So how did it ever become acceptable to call it Xmas? Clearly that started as a way to take Christ out of the holiday. But when you do that, you destroy the meaning of the day.

Want to be nice to others? Want to give and receive stuff? Want to tell stories about the jolly elf in the red suit, guided by the reindeer with the red nose? 

That's all well and good. But if you want to do it on the day celebrated as the day Jesus Christ was born, at least have the decency to keep his name in the title.

Who knows? Maybe one day it will give you pause to think about the real reason for the season.

Merry Christmas.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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