Saturday, December 17, 2011

The battle over Christmas

At work we eagerly await our annual Winter Holiday Party which will shortly be followed by a much needed Winter Break. Contrary to what that might suggest, we will not be hibernating through the coldest months of the year, just taking two days off work surrounding December 25th, the day we used to call Christmas. I've kind of become famous around the office for insisting on greeting people this time of year with a hearty "Merry Christmas", instead of an insipid (to my ears), "Happy Holidays." I imagine my adherence to the old fashioned term is more amusing than annoying to the people who know me, at least I hope so, as mentioning Christmas in public has become in some circles, politically incorrect.

As I get older, I'm becoming a little less strident and have taken on more of a live and let live attitude about the subject of Christmas. After all, people who don't believe in Christ, God, or anything for that matter, needn't be inundated by the belief systems of others, and Christmas is first and foremost a religious holiday right?

Well yes and no.

It may come as a surprise to some that in Christian tradition, Christmas isn't as big a deal as one might think. It is not the most important holiday in Christianity, that honor unquestionably belongs to Easter. The story of the birth of Jesus is sketchy at best in the Bible, most of it is to be found in only one of the four Gospels. It didn't even occur to early Christians to celebrate the birthday of Jesus, the first celebration of Christmas didn't take place until the late fourth century.

No one knows the year, let alone the exact date of the birth of Jesus. The only certainty, if we are to believe the biblical account, is that he could not have been born in late December. One theory for the choice of December 25th centers around the tradition that Jesus' crucifixion took place on the anniversary of his conception. Add nine months to that date, which is explicitly stated in the Gospels, and you get December 25th. Another theory is that the date was chosen, after Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire, to coincide with the ancient Pagan celebration of Winter Solstice, when the sun reverses its slow daily descent in the sky. There is a poetic synchronicity here as the figurative re-birth of the sun coincides with the literal birth of the Son.  Many of the traditions that we associate with Christmas, gift giving, the Christmas tree, the yule log, holly and mistletoe, all-round merriment, and even Santa Claus, originate from Pagan rituals. These traditions are precisely the reason why many extreme Christian groups throughout history have downplayed and even banned the celebration of Christmas.

Of course today in mainstream Christianity, Christmas is a big deal. Throughout the world, the faithful are scrambling to take the holiday back from what they see as over commercialization and secularization. Hearing complaints about too much emphasis on consumerism, and not enough about the "real meaning of Christmas" is as predictable as hearing the song; "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" played at the local KMart the day after Halloween. "Put Christ back into Christmas" is the rallying cry of regular church goers who are appalled by the merry-makers and the folks who only show up at church on Christmas Day and take their precious seats and parking spaces.

It's pretty much the same folks who complain that there is a "war on Christmas" going on, waged by non-believers who would remove all traces of religious symbolism from public spaces.

But we Christians can't have it both ways. If we want to take back Christmas and keep it solely as a religious holiday, we can't expect people of other beliefs to embrace it as a public holiday. Imagine the outcry among most Christian groups if there were to be a national observance of the month of Ramadan.

My feeling as a Christian, is simply let everybody celebrate Christmas in whatever way they wish. Who could possibly argue with the secular traditions of giving unselfishly, of spreading joy to others and letting others' joy spread to you. I don't have any problem with a little frivolity, of decorating homes and businesses with lights and ornaments, and the sounds of Christmas songs (most of whom written by Jewish songwriters) played on sound systems in department stores. Christmas is the time of year when life seems the most worth living, when people put their everyday troubles behind them, and simply celebrate life.

Familiar secular works such as Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Frank Capra's film It's a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss (who was also Jewish), and my all time favorite Christmas story by O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi, speak to the true meaning of Christmas at least as well as the chapter that St. Luke devotes to the birth of Jesus in his Gospel. Even the inescapable "jolly old elf" profoundly addresses the spirit of Christmas which is actually very simple, even in purely theological terms; generosity and above all, love.

You can call it Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, or even the ho hum Winter Holiday, and the spirit is the same, on earth, peace and goodwill to all. Still in my heart of hearts I think it's a shame that we are fighting over calling it Christmas.

On the other hand, perhaps this is for the best. Back when everyone simply wished each other "Merry Christmas", it was more or less a perfunctory holiday greeting. Now, forced to give great thought to my choice of words, when I wish someone a "Merry Christmas" I'm saying: "I wish you peace, joy, and love, for now, and always." When I say: "Happy Holidays" I'm saying: "Enjoy your day off and don't drink too much egg nog."

As a subversive term, "Merry Christmas" actually means something. With that in mind please allow me to wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and a joyous New Year.

And may God bless us, every one.

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