Tag Archives: holidays

Why I’m Opting Out of the Christmas War

No SantaYes, in the eyes of some, I am committing high treason or at least a serious abdication of my moral responsibilities as a Christian, but I’m declaring an end to my participation in the so-called Christmas War. If I was the commanding general of the Christmas War, I would call for an immediate cease fire. Why is that? It’s a completely unnecessary war and one more thing that makes us Christians look ridiculous.

You know the Great Christmas War I’m talking about. It has been waged on several major fronts which are once again picking up in intensity this time of year:

  • The Battle of the Name  What do we call Christmas? And what seasonal greeting do we offer others? Is it Christmas? Is it Xmas? (And by the way, X is a valid shortening of the name. Contrary to popular belief, X is the first letter of “Christ” in Greek, so yes indeed, it stands for Christ. It’s not some conspiratorial attempt to X out Jesus.) Do we wish people a Merry Christmas, or do we wish people a generic Happy Holidays, not wishing to offend our non-Christian neighbors? (On another aside, “Happy Holidays” originated as a way to combine a Christmas and New Year’s greeting, especially since for a long time the New Year celebration was the main event, not Christmas. Christmas did not become a widely celebrated event in the form we now have it until sometime in the 19th Century.) Do we want the department stores to make their profits from Christmas or the Holidays?
  • The Battle of Town Square Every year, Christians complain that secular society is running poor baby Jesus out of full display on the town square. In the name of separation of Church and State, he’s being thrown out of schools opting for a more secular or multicultural holiday celebration. Or he’s having to share the town corner stage with a Jewish Menorah and a Kwanzaa Mishumaa Saba. Worse yet, he may get no mention or space anywhere in a public forum.
  • Kneeling SantaThe Battle of the North Pole For many Christians, Santa Claus has become the symbol of all things secular and commercial about the Christmas season. I’ve seen Christian t-shirts with a crossed out Santa bearing the words “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” I’ve also seen statues and pictures of a full red-suited, white-bearded Santa Claus with his red Santa hat by his feet, kneeling before baby Jesus in the manger. (Yes, I get the sentiment, but really? Do we need to show an Americanized, fictitious version of Saint Nicholas bowing down before baby Jesus? I know the Scriptures say that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, but does that really include Santa Claus? I digress…) Nevertheless, for many Christians, Santa Claus and the whole secularization and commercialization of Christmas is a menace and disgrace to the observance of Jesus Christ’s birth. While leaving poor Santa alone for a moment, I agree. But why keep whining about it, as if shaming people towards Jesus’ birth will change the hearts of anyone?

Here’s the reality: Christmas is indeed an important Christian feast day and season which begins Christmas Day and concludes with Epiphany. Just as pronounced- if not more!- is the reality that we are now immersed in a highly cultural phenomenon far more intense and unlike any other time of the year. Can you think of any other season with more music devoted to it? Can you think of any other time of the year as highly saturated with parties, festivities, trappings, family, and economic activity?

It is simply a losing proposition to think that somehow battling a powerful cultural phenomenon most all of us partake in, based on the celebration of Jesus’ birth, will change anything for the good. Do we really think that forcing people to say and accept “Merry Christmas”, forcing Jesus into public squares and schools, and stomping out Santa Claus are going to somehow restore the joy of Christmas into the hearts of our neighbors? Don’t bet on it. Is there really some kind of idyllic Christmas to which we can compare? Not really. Christmas has always been a cultural celebration that is both religious and secular, and to some degree Christians have continually lamented that. You can see how successful we’ve been turning the tide!
NativitySo instead of loudly warring against society in a fruitless effort win back the heart and soul of Christmas, I want to practice something much more Christmasy. Quiet love. Jesus’ birth was a quiet, largely unnoticed event, in poverty, among the clamoring hustle and bustle of that day. The angelic proclamation of Jesus’ birth wasn’t even a public event. The angels came to a few ragamuffin shepherds on the outskirts of Bethlehem village to announce the good news. Once the shepherds found and saw Jesus, they went out to share the good news, much to the amazement of all they told, but there’s no evidence that anything more came of it. Jesus still entered the world in humility and simplicity.

It’s an oft overlooked irony that the great joy, peace, and life of the world, the Word of God born in human flesh, the desire of the nations, entered the world largely unnoticed. Our gaudy, triumphant celebrations badly miss that point. For that reason, of all the Christmas hymns we sing, “Silent Night” best captures the essence of Christmas. In darkness and silence, the wonderful, radiant holiness of God was born.

What would it look like for us Christians to drop our anxious, self-righteous war for Christmas and move through the Advent and Christmas season in the way of Jesus’ birth, in quiet love? What if we embodied the peace, joy, hope, love and goodwill we sing about every year in the ways we talk to people, care for them, and serve them? What if we quit worrying about Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays, public displays, and how the rest of the world carries on with its version of the season? What if we became the light of the world- not a blaring, angry, shaming spotlight, but the inviting, warm, glowing warmth of Jesus for cold, weary people looking to find their way?

That’s a far cry from the way we’ve carried on Christmas!

Humble, quiet, hopeful, peaceful, simple, joyful, self-giving… Now that sounds like a Christmas worth having.

1 Comment

Filed under Christmas and Holidays

It’s the Most Politically Correct Time of the Year

I never thought to exert any effort addressing this topic, or worse yet subject you, my patient readers, to this dribble. Yet every time I think it’s gone away, it starts barking again. I recently posted a question about this on Facebook and got overwhelmed with the varied responses. Yes, I’m talking about the battle over Christmas.

Every year, this time of year, without fail, it goes something like this:
Do we have a Christmas Tree at the town square or a non-sectarian Holiday Tree? Do we put up a Nativity there, scrap it all together for lights and snowflakes, or maybe put up a Nativity alongside a Menorah and a Kwanzaa kinara? Oops… forgot to add the Festivus pole… oh yeah, and the Yule Log.

And of course, there’s the seasonal salutation question. Do we keep to a faithful “Merry Christmas” or offer an all-inclusive “Happy Holidays”? If we ask that, we might as well consider whether to boycott those ungodly, anti-Christian stores who refuse to acknowledge Christmas with that secular “Happy Holidays” garbage or perhaps shun the stores who sold out to the Bill O’Reilly evangelical fundamentalist right-wingers and now emblazon that bigoted “Merry Christmas” hate speech all over their stores. How oppressive!

You get the idea…

Now, just to turn down the heat with a reality check, let’s keep three things in mind.

First, Happy Holidays was originally shorthand for Merry Christmas and Happy New Years. While it’s become a polite, non-sectarian seasonal greeting for most people, some still use Happy Holidays as a catch-all for Christmas and New Years.

Second, the widespread celebration of Christmas with Santa Claus, decorations, Christmas Eve services, gift giving, and the whole nine yards is a fairly recent phenomenon. Ironically enough, 200 years ago, most Protestants could have cared less about Christmas or even wrote it off as a “papist” folly. Christmas is the Christ-Mass, after all. That’s why, historically speaking, it’s pretty amusing to hear us evangelical Christians coming to the rescue of a once-avoided Catholic feast day.

Third, for Jews and Christians, Christmas and Hanukkah are not the most important religious celebrations of the year, despite all the hoopla. For Christians, Easter Sunday is by far the foremost feast day, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And for a long time, the January 6 celebration of Epiphany was more prominent than Christmas. (I know some folks who out of principle purposefully still honor this.) For Jews, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most important day of the year, followed by Rosh Hashanah. Hanukkah, a far less important Jewish celebration, has earned a place of unintended cultural prominence for Jews living in the clang and clamor of Christmas, which again, once upon a time, was never all that important to a significant segment of Christendom.

So why all the fuss over Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays or whether or not it’s appropriate to have a Nativity on public property?

This is part and parcel of the ongoing culture wars. Looking at the scope of human history, the transitional years between major periods of history have always been politically, economically, and culturally turbulent. I believe we are in that time of turbulent transition from Modernity to the next thing. That’s why we speak of everything now as post—post-Enlightenment, post-Imperialism, post-Christendom, post-Western, postmodern. These are not definitive, concrete terms, only negations of what used to be, making way for the next thing. Meanwhile no one seems to know what that next thing is. Until the next thing comes, we get to endure the culture wars of our times, the struggle between what we conserve versus what we change or simply throw out.

The struggle over Christmas is over the identity of Christmas and the place of Christmas, among many other traditional things, in an increasingly pluralistic culture. When we see the bumper sticker slogan “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” we’re dealing with a strictly contemporary sentiment that would have seemed patently absurd to people just forty years ago. That’s recent past, really.

But there’s another oddity about our post-everything age. When dealing with cultural differences, we have set up an incongruent paradigm. It’s kind of funny, actually.

On the one side of this paradigm, it is increasingly poor manners to “judge” anyone or anything. Live and let live. I don’t have the right to tell you how you should live, what you should think, and what you should do, most especially if it doesn’t directly affect me. Nor do I have the right to enter your personal space with my values and beliefs without your explicit permission. Personal freedom, privacy, and tolerance are the basic, inviolate interrelational virtues of our day.

However, on the other side of the paradigm, we hold a fundamental right to never be offended. Maybe that’s why we get so cranky! Someone says or does something that clashes with my life and values, and I feel personally violated, as if what was said and done was explicitly intended to attack my personhood. For example, I wish you a Happy Holidays, and you might interpret that as my trivializing your Christian holiday or even your Christian faith. Or if I wish you a Merry Christmas, you might interpret that as a manipulative form of proselytizing. So much for tolerance. (For the record, I don’t know of anyone who ever became a born again believer or who was ever coerced into Christianity after being wished a Merry Christmas. And no, I don’t buy the argument that saying Merry Christmas is a necessary preservative of Christmas. Unpretentiously working in a homeless shelter on Christmas Day, however—now that’s preserving the gift of Christmas.)

So, we live in this paradigmatic tension of tolerance versus never offending or being offended.

Strangely enough I live with this same tension in the church culture. On the one hand, we mainline Protestants pride ourselves for practicing “Open Minds, Open Doors, and Open Hearts” (a recent United Methodist slogan). But on the other hand, the baseline question that drives the bulk of our decisions and behaviors is, “That won’t offend anyone, will it?” Unfortunately, all too seldom do we ask, “What is the right thing, the most holy thing, the most Christ-like thing?” Instead we walk on eggshells, neurotically sanitizing everything we say or do, lest this group or this person should get their panties in a bunch (oops, that last image might have offended someone!) and walk out… with checkbook in hand, of course.

Getting back to Christmas, all sides of the debate have made it a politically correct nightmare. Both Christians and non-Christians want tolerance but are offended when their sensibilities are violated. Christians cannot charge non-Christians and secularists with a politically correct tyranny of Happy Holidays and non-sectarian winter solstice festivities and at the same time turn around and demand carte blanche for Merry Christmas and Nativities. Both demand tolerance while simultaneously filing a public grievance over the cultural violations of the other.

So, how do we go forward? I think we need to ask a question to ourselves. We need to go beyond the question, “Can’t we all just get along?” That question asks for basic toleration, and toleration isn’t enough. We must ask ourselves, “How can I fully embrace the other, honoring them while remaining true to myself?” That doesn’t mean I agree with all they believe, do, or say. But I don’t have to let those incongruities bother me. Instead, I can appreciate them for the gift from God they are and the gifts from God they offer, and fully value and include them for that.

That would mean you could see me out on the street and wish me a Happy Holidays, a Happy Hanukkah, a Happy Kwanzaa, a Happy Winter Solstice, a Happy Christmakwanzukkah, or just a “Hey there, Chris!” and I would receive that as your blessing to me, and receive it with joy because I receive you with joy. At the same time, I could joyfully wish you a Merry Christmas in my excitement over the birth of Christ, and you would receive that and me for what they were intended to be: a blessing and a gift to you, however you choose to receive me.

All this would be a significant down payment on the angels’ proclamation to the shepherds of “…good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all the people” (Luke 2:10).

11 Comments

Filed under Christmas and Holidays, Cultural Quakes