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).