Whenever I hear the familiar drums of war, I know it’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas. Many of my brothers and sisters in faith have made a tradition of trying to save baby Jesus from the onslaught of a politically correct “holiday” season. Our more zealous types denounce all the careful language of the season, raging against government offices and retail hubs that refuse to let the Nativity have first billing. Their battle cries are, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” and “Keep the Christ in Christmas.”
On one hand, I can see why some are so frustrated. From a historical perspective, the December holiday season in the United States became a big deal precisely because of Christmas. It wasn’t because of Kwanzaa. Not because of Winter Solstice. Not Chinese New Year. Not even Hanukkah. For most of our Jewish neighbors, Hanukkah doesn’t even come close to the sacred clout of Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah. All of these other religious and cultural celebrations have risen in American popularity because of the simple fact that they share a calendar page with Christmas.
So it makes sense that the Christ-child defenders are steamed. They want a return to the way things were — when the majority wasn’t afraid to say the words “Merry Christmas,” and when good God-fearing people could see the Holy Family on the lawn at City Hall.
But I’ve never quite figured out what the defenders are really defending. One moment they’re calling for more hallowed devotion to the Lord. But in the next moment, they’re demanding that this same Lord serve as the sole pitchman for every bargain bin of stocking stuffers. I’m just not sure it’s possible to have more Christ in Christmas while also trying to have more Christ in the check-out line.
If you want more Christ in Christmas, that’s actually a very honest and faithful aspiration, one that I share. I want this season to be sacred for me and my family, but I’m not asking Hallmark to make it happen.
We can start by observing Advent, a completely counter-cultural season this time of year. The notion of waiting, in silence and hopeful expectation, for the Incarnate God to come is not something that retailers are quick to co-opt. Gather with the fellowship of others on the path of following Christ. Light the candles of the Advent wreath. Read the 40th chapter of Isaiah. Sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” We don’t need the culture’s permission for this to be a holy time.
But don’t expect to find all this in the marketplace. Don’t try to force it on the marketplace. And please, don’t get your mistletoe twisted in a bunch if the marketplace doesn’t go along with you. Let’s not kid ourselves, the 21st century (or 20th century, for that matter) American version of “christmas” is basically a cultural celebration of family and friends, gifts and glitter, warm wishes on cold nights. Wouldn’t it just be better to call it “the holiday season” and let everyone find their place in it?
All of this is completely fine by me. Along with the reverent purple of Advent, and the pure white of Christmas, my family willingly joins our society in the red and green of “the holiday season”. We put lights on the house. We drink eggnog. We exchange presents. Frosty the Snowman sits next to Santa Claus on the mantle.
Is this holy? Not particularly. Is it wrong? Only if we let our hearts and souls become equally commercialized. But it is what it is. And on most days, I have no problem taking part in it. I just do it with a wink and smile, knowing full well that it’s not intended to be sacred. Besides, we all need the good tidings of Bing Crosby and Burl Ives from time to time.
So to my more zealous friends, let’s not fret when the elementary school down the street has a “Winter Holiday Party.” Let’s not rush to take up Christmas arms when Mariah Carey sings “Silent Night” in a Santa hat. And let’s not say that “they”… whoever “they” may be… are oppressing our religious faith because Target refuses to wish us a “Merry Christmas.” Ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Desmond Tutu what it means to be oppressed for religious faith.
To all of you near and far, whatever your faith and cultural traditions may be — whether you light the menorah, you observe the seven principles of African culture, you hang stockings by the chimney or you air grievances near the Festivus pole — Happy Holidays.
And to you fellow pilgrims chasing this mystery on the path of Christ, may you have a blessed Advent. May it be full of hope, peace, joy and love. May the One born in these days to come… be born in you.