War on Christmas

December 24, 2010

Clay Nelson

Christmas Eve & Day


Not all Christmas traditions are created equal. In the country of my birth a new tradition has arisen – regrettably. It is the annual “War on Christmas.” In America’s defence, war is kind of our thing. Most of my life we have been at war with someone. When there weren’t enough “someones” to war with we had wars on things: poverty, drugs, terror and now Christmas. This latest tradition became popular with the rise of Fox News who begins beating the drums of war sometime each September. Fox doesn’t believe it began the hostilities. Those who choose to greet others with “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” rather than “Merry Christmas” fired the first shot in their view. Fox would have us believe it is defending Christianity against liberals and atheists and implicitly, Muslims and Jews. If you don’t say “Merry Christmas” you are probably a terrorist. In truth Fox could care less what is on your Christmas card. Fox’s only stock in trade is dividing people. When people are polarized by fear of another’s race, creed, colour or Christmas greeting it is easier to keep power in the hands of the rich and powerful.


My fear is that this conflagration could expand beyond US borders thanks to cable television, which broadcasts Fox News around the world. Thanks to fear mongering, Christmas may spark World War III.


In the interest of peace on earth, goodwill to all, I have a suggestion. Let’s take the angels’ message seriously, “Don’t be afraid.” Let’s take away their talking point and wish everyone a merry Christmas. Let’s refuse to be an enemy combatant. Some might think this is a capitulation to evil. But I would argue that it is an act of defiance. The spirit of Christmas is universal and belongs to everyone. To wish your humanist, pagan, progressive, Jewish, and Muslim friends or anyone else for that matter, a merry Christmas is not only an act of generosity it is a reminder that Christmas doesn’t belong just to those who proclaim Jesus as their personal lord and saviour.


In fact, if Christmas belongs to anyone, it belongs to the Pagans. It wasn’t until the 4th Century that the church started celebrating the winter solstice with the birth of Jesus. Pagans have been celebrating it for 4000 years. It is the Pagans who gave us holly and mistletoe; Yule logs and Christmas trees. The Egyptians symbolized the return of the sun with the birth of a baby boy. Our candlelight services go back to the priestess bringing sacred fire out of the cave and passing the flame to her pagan congregation.


All this was too tempting to the church. They borrowed all of it and Christmas was born. But even then Christians didn’t universally celebrate it. The Puritans outlawed it in Massachusetts because of its pagan roots. There are Christian sects today that still refuse to celebrate it for the same reason.


For Pagans there is no embarrassment about keeping this season - keeping alive the wisdom that the light that shines on in the darkness, our darkness, cannot be extinguished. The pagan in us all – and all of us have some – will not be offended by a greeting of merry Christmas.


After the Pagans, Christmas probably belongs most to the Jews. Of course, wishing the Jews a merry Christmas presents a dilemma. Here is a story that has been the excuse for persecution and pogroms. For not accepting Jesus as THE Messiah, Jews have been subjected to great evil. For a Jew to sit out Christmas is not a surprise.


Still, the irony is, Jesus never of course, saw himself as anything but a Jew, one after reform, to be sure, but a Jew. The word “Christian” never crossed his lips. That anti-Semitism tries to hide this fact is another matter.


Jesus’ message was simple enough: the religion of his day had become lost in formalism. The letter became more important than the spirit. Forms that were to enhance human life were used to pound it down.


It is a hypocrisy found in every religion, often among those who claimed to found a new church in Jesus name. In our celebration of this Jewish prophet’s birth we do well to remember that. Strange as it may seem, there is room for a Jew in the stable. On that holy night, other than the magi, that is all there were at that stable. For that matter there is room for a Muslim as well, as the Qur’an venerates both Jesus and his mother. So the least we can do is thank them for our merry Christmas.


Humanists present more of a problem. Certainly in the last century they have stood firmly in the camp of “reason” against what they consider the superstitions of religion. The myths and stories around Christmas give them little reason to celebrate the season. Wishing them a merry Christmas, may get a “Bah! Humbug!” in response. But Christmas has something to offer them as well. 


Humanists have traditionally held that it is to the human, not to the divine, we must look for help. While early Christians squabbled about his nature, the “human” Jesus showed us what a human can do. He turned things upside down. His public life of only three years changed the world. While it may seem an impossible contradiction, Humanists can celebrate the birth of someone who showed us the full extent of our human powers. More than that, the ethic that Jesus taught, love for our fellow beings, is at its heart humanistic, as is his call to serve humankind.


What could be more appropriate for a humanist than to celebrate the most human of holidays? The themes of Christmas reflect the deepest yearnings of the human heart: hope and light, birth and joy and love and peace. There is a lot here for the humanist to celebrate. So we wish them merry Christmas.


Then there are the free thinking progressives who do not follow a “Jesus saves us” Christianity, but an ethical and spiritual Christianity, following the teachings of Jesus, the religion of Jesus, rather than the one about Jesus. They take in stride all the assurances that they are going to hell, and noting the fine people who are going to hell with them according to the orthodox, say, “Go to Heaven for the weather and hell for the company.” 


Progressives are found in many traditions including Anglican, but some of the first were Unitarians. One was Charles Dickens, whose story of human transformation, A Christmas Carol, helped give Christmas the popularity it has today. Another was John Pierpont who captured the joy of Christmas in his song Jingle Bells.


Sadly, some do not see them or their successors as part of the Christian tradition. Fox does not wish progressives a merry Christmas because progressives do not see the Christmas story as factual history, but as a myth that in the telling reaches deeply into our hearts. Progressives hear a tale of a child born in the commonest circumstance, revealing the holiness of every birth; declaring that even among the shunned, in a place of dung, divinity has a perch; that in the most wretched place we find that reality has a heart.


Progressives celebrate this subversive truth of Christmas. Thomas Merton, Catholic writer, monk and progressive thinker put it this way:


Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are tortured and bombed and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst ... It is in these that he hides himself, for whom there is no room.


Part of us chaffs at the idea that among those whom we shun and reject, is the holy. It is a hell of a note... No wonder so many are tempted to believe the story literally and miss the implication – the holy is among us.


For the progressive this truth is what makes Christmas merry. Here is the affirmation that the birth of God's love is possible in all times and places, even in our dread and doubt.


So as an act of peacemaking I wish you all a merry Christmas. For all of us are what make Christmas what it is, whether we believe the story literally, mythically, or not at all. We are all actors in the story and without any of us it would lose power to transform a world of darkness, pain, loss, and injustice. Without any of us the world would be less holy.


So my message of peace to Fox is from a child repeating the Lord’s prayer as he understood it: “forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us.”

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