Monday, December 19, 2016

Hijacking Christmas

It's Christmas season again which means it's time for cherished American traditions like chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Yuletide carols being sung by a choir, and folks fussing over what decorations are appropriate in public spaces. The latest to-do is taking place as we speak in Knightstown, Indiana, (pop 2,182) where local townsfolk are aghast over one of their own, Joseph Tompkins, who filed a lawsuit against the city over their tradition of placing a cross on top of a Christmas tree in front of city hall. Rather than facing a costly ACLU lawsuit which they most certainly would lose, the local burghers begrudgingly decided to remove the cross, much to the chagrin of the local populace. 

I don't know Mr. Tompkins but can only assume the man has a load of chutzpah, going against his neighbors in a small town whose population is overwhelmingly Christian and in favor of keeping the cross. I can imagine he's not the most popular guy in town these days. I also don't know his motivation for filing the suit, nor do I really care.

Despite claims by the local citizenry that the removal of the cross is a violation of their first amendment rights to proclaim their faith. (I keep hearing the statement that nowhere are the words "separation of church and state" found in the constitution), the very first clause in the first amendment of our constitution declares unequivocally that government shall not make any law respecting the establishment of religion. One could argue whether or not a cross atop a tree on government property really constitutes the establishment of a religion. Whichever side you're on concerning that question however matters not in the slightest, as courts all over the country have decided that indeed it does, which is why the local government in that small Indiana town wisely captiulated rather than face an expensive court battle they had no chance of winning.

Mr. Tompkins certainly has the law on his side, but the question has to be asked, is this really a battle worth fighting? Some would say that court battles over Christmas decorations are petty, they further divide an already divided nation, and go a long way to take all the fun out of what is supposed to be the most joyous time of the year, the one time when people are actually nice to each other. In other words, political correctness imposed by the no-religious-decoration-on-public-property crowd, some feel, is hijacking the holiday.

A small part of me agrees with that sentiment.

On the other hand...

Some Americans take it for granted that this is a Christian country. While it's true for now anyway, that the majority of people in the United States identify themselves in one way or other with Christianity, as we just saw, our constitution states this is no more a Christian country than a Jewish, Muslim or Atheist country, but a nation of laws irrespective of creed. This indeed is as it should be.

To Christians, myself included, the cross has deep symbolic meaning. I won't go into all of that here but suffice it to say that in a nutshell, to Christians the cross is the symbol of God's enduring love for all of humanity. At least that's how I read it. Needless to say that symbolism falls upon deaf ears to non-Christians, many of whom see the cross as representing not God, but people throughout history who have been indifferent, intolerant, and at times openly hostile to others who do not share their beliefs.

To many, the cross is a symbol of oppression. Under the cross, the Spanish government expelled all non-converted Jews and Muslims from their country in 1492. To the indigenous people of the Americas, the cross symbolizes European conquerors who brutally imposed their faith upon them. The Ku Klux Klan during their reign of terror in this country, chose the burning cross as the symbol of their own brand of cruelty, hatred and oppression. And sadly today, the cross is becoming a symbol of the intolerance of many white American Christians whom as we saw this past election season, would just as soon everyone not like them go someplace else.

Ironically, the Christians who voted for Donald Trump last month, supported a man who at least from his outward actions, could not be farther from representing Christian ethics and values. I can only assume that what appealed to the Christians who voted for him, or at least justified their vote, was his bullet point style of addressing issues close to their hearts. Although in the past, Trump stated he was "pro choice", in this cycle he came out as staunchly anti-abortion. He also claimed to be pro-Israel, anti Muslim, and pledged that when he became president, people would no longer substitute the greeting "Happy Holidays" for "Merry Christmas". How he planned to accomplish that I have no idea, make a law I suppose.

It's true that I vastly prefer wishing people a Merry Christmas to the insipid Happy Holidays. If you're interested you can read my reasons here. Yes I understand that many people do not celebrate Christmas, at least not as a religious holiday. But while there is definitely a religious component to Christmas, it is by no means strictly a religious holiday, it never has been, and in fact, the holiday predates Christianity by several centuries. Having a winter celebration commemorating the birth of the son rather than the birth of the son was simply a palatable way for Emperor Constantine to introduce his new found faith to his pagan subjects, For the first three centuries of Christianity, the followers of Christ never even thought of commemorating his birthday.

Yet today all over the land we hear voices crying out to "put Christ back into Christmas." As I mentioned in my earlier piece on the subject, we Christians can't have it both ways. If we want the emphasis of the holiday to be on religion, we can't expect people who do not share the faith to participate, even by extending the simple gesture of wishing others a "Merry Christmas."

I have to admit being slightly perplexed at the attitude of some of my fellow Christians regarding the holiday as in reality, the secular and the sacred Christmas seasons don't even overlap. As we all know, in the U.S., the secular Christmas season begins officially the moment folks begin to digest their Thanksgiving dinner. In reality it begins as soon as the stores take down their Halloween decorations.

To the purely secular, Christmas ends on Christmas Day. For my father, an a-religious person if there ever was one, it ended even earlier as our family tradition was to have Christmas dinner and the opening of presents on Christmas Eve. Like clockwork every year, after the last gift was unwrapped, my father would proclaim gloomily: "well another Christmas is over."

Of course it hadn't even begun!

To believers, the real feast of Christmas does not begin until Christmas Day, and is celebrated for the famous twelve days, culminating with the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. In church, the four weeks preceding Christmas Day are not considered Christmas at all, but Advent, a solemn time of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting, much like the forty days (not counting the Sundays) of Lent before Easter. Just as Lent, Advent is a time of preparation, in this case not just preparing to commemorate the historical birth of Jesus, 2,000 years ago, but more importantly, preparation for the next coming of Christ which will signal the end of the world and the beginning of eternal life. Pretty heavy stuff, small wonder why that part of the Christmas story isn't mentioned in any of the holiday songs or stories we're inundated with every year at this time.

I could be wrong but I can't remember much of a conflict between secular and sacred Christmas during the first half of my life. Then about thirty years ago I began to notice a slow but steady decline in the use of the word Christmas.

The operator of the train I was riding last night announced that at the next stop we would be able to board the Christmas Train featuring Santa Claus and his minions, something that has been a Chicago tradition for a number of years. As soon as the words came out of his mouth he corrected himself saying: "Excuse me, I meant to say the Holiday Train." As you can see in the picture, I met Santa and he personally wished me a hearty "Merry Christmas". Apparently Santa is not on board with CTA policy as far as their idea of the proper nomenclature for the holiday. To illustrate the universial nature of the holiday, Santa Claus is a Christmas tradition whose origins can be traced back to pagan times.

So of course is the Christmas tree.

Neither the secular nor the religious seem to have much of a problem with the public display of the Christmas, excuse me, holiday tree, Santa Claus, and other religious-neutral symbols of the season. Chicago seems to have worked it out pretty well I think in their approach to decorations in our most public government space, Daley Plaza. For many years there was a tradition of placing a creche in the plaza at Christmastime. When people objected to the overtly religious symbolism of the life size figures representing the characters in the Christmas story, raising of the funds for the display of the creche was taken over by the Knights of Columbus and new signage made it absolutely clear that not a cent of public money was spent on the display. Then a giant menorah was placed adjacent to the creche as were symbols of other faiths, including in recent years, a nod to Pagans in the form of a tribute to the Winter Solstice. All this in the midst of our version of a holiday festival market found virtually everywhere in Germany this time of year. No one even seems to mind its name, Christkindl Market, an anglicized version of the original German,

A local official in Knightstown was asked why a similar gesture to give tribute to other faiths couldn't be made in their public square. He said that they would have no problem with that but there were no Jews, Muslims or Pagans in Knightstown. Perhaps that's true or perhaps he hasn't bothered to check.

Meanwhile many of the citizens of Knightstown, appalled by the removal of the cross from the tree, have vowed to display crosses in every front yard in town, which is certainly their right. But it seems to me that as the self-proclaimed keepers of the holiday, we Christians could do better by keeping the Christmas spirit, not by advertising our faith, like football fans during homecoming week, but by extending an olive branch to our brothers and sisters who don't share our faith. Isn't that the true meaning of Christmas? Wouldn't that be the "Christian" thing to do?

By overtly proclaiming our faith this time of year, isn't it we Christians who are hijacking Christmas? Besides, who ever heard of putting a cross on top of a Christmas tree?

1 comment:

Pete said...

I don't even remember my church putting a cross on top of the tree when I was growing up. It was always a star, which is fitting since it's a major part of the Christmas story. And wouldn't a cross be more of an Easter symbol anyway?