Outrage at the so-called “war on Christmas” has been bubbling up every year for a while now. So let’s take stock of some of the winners and losers (collateral damage, if you will) in this conflict — which, by the way, has a surprisingly long and disturbing history. (Let’s just say holiday conspiracy theories can be traced all the way back to the 1920s when Henry Ford was making cars and issuing anti-Semitic rants.)
1. Loser: Advent
Lost in the fog of the mythical “war on Christmas” is the less noticeable but actually real war on Advent.
For Christians, Advent is the season of “expectant waiting and preparation” leading up to Christmas — a time when we allow the darkness to wash over us, punctuated only by a few candles. It reminds us of the story that precedes Christmas — specifically, the years Israel spent in exile, waiting for deliverance. It’s a reminder that we too live in a sort of exile, waiting for our renewal.
In our lifetime, the last quarter of every year has morphed into a mad rush from one holiday to the next, steamrolling right through Advent. “We go from Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas without stopping,” as John Allen Bankson wrote.
Advent calls us to stop, to interrupt the relentless cycle of consumerism. Heralding the start of a new liturgical year, Advent calls on Christians to mark time differently. It calls us to read the prologue before we dive headlong into the Christmas story.
Again, John Allen Bankson:
When it comes to the story of the Incarnation, Advent is the beginning, Christmas is the middle, and Epiphany is the end… If we’re only telling part of the story, we’re not telling it very well.
Turning Christmas into a shopping marathon stretching roughly two weeks before Halloween all the way to 11:59 pm on December 24 — that’s the real assault on the season. So maybe we can choose not to say “Merry Christmas” during Advent. Maybe that can become our small act of defiance, a reminder that it’s not actually Christmas yet.
2. Winner: Our artificial persecution complex
Let’s understand all this “war on Christmas” outrage for what it really is: a massive, collective temper tantrum over one group losing uncontested power. White evangelical Protestants had a long run at “majority culture” status in America. But things have changed.
What do you do when you’re accustomed to calling the shots unilaterally, and then one day you don’t get to anymore? Play the persecution card. At the heart of a “war on Christmas” mentality is a belief that I’m being persecuted if the cashier at American Eagle Outfitters doesn’t wish me a merry Christmas. But the truth is, I don’t have a constitutional right to a “merry Christmas” greeting. Freedom of speech means I have the right to say what I want; it does not mean I have the right to force others to say what I think they should say.
As the former Archbishop of Canterbury observed, it’s easier to sustain a persecution complex when you don’t have any meaningful contact with actual persecuted minorities. When we try to make an act of persecution out of someone’s failure to wish us a merry Christmas, we trivialize the suffering of those who have endured real persecution.
As Rowan Williams would say, “For goodness sake, grow up.”
3. Loser: Christmas’ inherent adaptability (also: basic human respect)
As a Christian, I’m all for celebrating the original meaning of Christmas. (See #5 below.) But Christmas has always moved with the times. For centuries, the church didn’t even celebrate Christmas because, well, for one thing, nobody knows when Jesus was actually born. Eventually they settled on December 25, in part to compete with pagan festivities held during the winter solstice.
Another staple of Christmas, the Santa Claus legend, takes on different forms in different countries, many of which bear little resemblance to the mythical Nordic elf who, according to Megyn Kelly, “just is white.”
Christmas has always been able to adapt itself to local customs and cultures. So when someone wishes you a “happy holidays” instead of a “merry Christmas,” remember: not everyone observes this time of year the way you do. (Although, if your sole concern is “keeping the Christ in Christmas,” then wishing someone a “happy holidays” may not be as horrible as you’ve been led to believe. See #4 below.)
Bottom line: our Christmas celebrations should cultivate a heightened awareness of our shared humanity, differences and all. Personally, I liked it better when Christmas was about doing good to others, rather than waging war on them.
4. Winner: Fact-free punditry
When a supposedly serious news anchor claims that “Santa just is white” — much less “Jesus was a white man” — as if the matter is beyond dispute, the 24/7 news machine (or one part of it, anyway) has officially jumped the shark.
That’s because their first objective isn’t informing the public but pandering to a certain demographic by telling them what they already think. And when that’s the case, facts become expendable to the bottom line — even a hazard to it.
Never mind that the real Santa Claus, aka Saint Nicholas, was a Greek/Turkish bishop.
Never mind that Jesus was about as white as every other first-century Palestinian Jew, which means it’s a good bet he looked more like this…
Oh, and never mind that “happy holidays” comes from “happy holy days.” Whether they know it or not, people using this greeting are making a statement every bit as religious as “merry Christmas.”
Never mind all that. Welcome to the brave new world of cable news, where everyone’s entitled to their own set of facts. (Sorry, Daniel Patrick Moynihan.)
5. Loser: The real meaning of Christmas
Appearing on the Today Show to promote her latest book, Good Tidings of Great Joy, Sarah Palin made an alarmingly honest confession:
I love the commercialization of Christmas because it spreads the Christmas cheer. It’s the most jolly holiday, obviously, on our calendar.
Yes, I’m sure “jolly” is exactly what Mary felt when she learned she was going to be pregnant before she was even married. I’m sure that was Joseph’s reaction too when Mary broke the news. I’m sure it’s how both felt with every dark glance, every awkward silence from their families. I’m sure they were beside themselves with jollity when they discovered there was no “guest room” for them in Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home.
No doubt “jolly” sums up the reaction to Herod’s murderous rampage. The flight to Egypt must’ve been jolly good fun, too — trekking through the desert with an infant, taking refuge in a country that had once made slaves out of Mary and Joseph’s ancestors. And I’m sure Mary was positively overcome with jolly when an old man predicted that a sword would one day pierce her soul.
So yes, what better way to commemorate these jolly events than by racking up more credit card debt and getting all bent out of shape that the clerk at the big-box store didn’t wish us a “merry Christmas”?
For years, religious conservatives have been torn between two impulses: a commendable aversion to materialism, excess, and greed on the one hand — and a less commendable commitment to the unfettered free market, which thrives on greed and consumption. It seems that for some, the tension has evaporated; they have sold out entirely to their baser instincts, choosing to rewrite Christmas into a celebration of crass, unbridled, free-market commercialism, conveniently ignoring any mention of rulers being brought down or the rich being sent away empty-handed in the original Christmas story.
The real loser in the uproar over the “war on Christmas”? Christmas itself. If we want really to reclaim the season, first we need lay down our arms and stop fighting an imaginary war.