As if we’re not at war in enough ways, every year in this season of peace the “War on Christmas” starts up again.
Anticipating another good fight, since he always seems to be in a better mood when he’s stirring the pot, the president has declared that he’s going to make Christmas great again, too. No more of that politically correct “Happy Holidays” on his watch. We’re all going to say “Merry Christmas” from now on, by golly – whether we know what it means, or believe in Christmas, or not.
As a Christian pastor, I believe we ought to think carefully about what it means to require all Americans, Christian and non-Christian, to adopt “Merry Christmas” as a mandatory greeting this time of the year. While it may sound like “putting Christ back into Christmas,” I have serious doubts about that.
The season is magical, especially for children. I was no different than the rest. Counting the days, my anticipation rose to a boil because that best-of-all mornings would just never get here! I remember trying to force myself to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, and though I never had insomnia, sleeplessness was a common feature once a year. Santa Claus, Rudolph, the sleigh, his North Pole factory for toys… I believed it all, and I couldn’t wait!
And the year I started expressing some doubt (“Some kids at school are saying that Santa… that, well… that Santa doesn’t really…”), well that year, though I was with my parents (aka “Santa!”) all night long on Christmas Eve, though they never left my sight, when we finally got home from the Christmas Eve service and that wonderful party we went to every year at Robert and Virginia Vance’s house just down the street – Santa Claus had already come! Mama and Daddy explained: “He has to start somewhere. It’s a long night for old Ho Ho Ho. I guess we were just first on his list this year!” And I believed again, after all, it is the most wonderful time of the year.
Every culture needs its celebrations. Every society needs its stories and rituals and festivals and holidays. The gift-giving and the call to generosity, the office parties and the decorations, the pause from the hectic routine, these cultural remedies are just what the doctor ordered for a people intoxicated with work and stress and the busyness of just getting by.
But is that “Christmas”?
A few years ago a Jewish friend reminded me that Jews don’t do Santa Claus, because “Santa is Christian.” I was aghast. “No,” I protested. “No! As I understand my faith, in so many ways Santa is actually the antithesis of Christmas. The materialism, the commercialism, the frantic search for the perfect toy, the obsessive need to give the right gifts to the right people – even if it means paying off the credit card and the 29% interest for the next four months. It is a wonderful celebration, but what it has become is not at all what Jesus was about. Christmas is the opposite of all that.” But I could not persuade her.
What was true for my Jewish friend, overtly, is true for many Christians, if only subconsciously: Christmas is excess. Christmas is Santa. Christmas is stress. Christmas is unabashed materialism. Christmas is the intoxication of the spirit – and the spirits – of the season.
And what does all that have to do with Jesus?
My holiday experience in Clinton was idyllic. We decorated the house from stem to stern. The season at the Dean house was filled with parties and music and food. Santa never failed us.
And we also celebrated Christmas.
The highlight of my season, every bit as much as Santa, was the Christmas Eve service. The Baptists and the Presbyterians came together every year on that special night to remember what is central to Christian faith. In the music and the message, in the silence and the prayers and the candlelight, and in being there, together, we were reminded of Christmas: God comes among us, not in tinsel and trappings, but in the beauty of the simplicity of life. And in our house, after all the gifts were opened, but in the literal midst of all the wrappings of seasonal excess, my mother would get out her old KJV Bible, and my father would lead us as we recited the Christmas story together from Luke 2: “… and she brought forth her first born son and wrapped him in swaddling and laid in a manger…”
Without saying it, my parents were teaching their three children the difference in what this holiday season has become and in what Christmas will always be. And their lesson and their faithful example is better any day than a demand from on high that everyone will say “Merry Christmas” (so much for small government).
Requiring a religious blessing in what can only be rightfully understood as a secular way (what could “Christmas” mean for American Jews and Buddhists and Muslims and atheists?). This kind of usage can only hollow the word “Christmas” of any religious meaning.
As a Baptist, I’m grateful to be part of a nation that is free of any religious establishment, so “Happy Holidays” will suit me fine on the street. Come to my church, and we’ll celebrate Christmas.