“I guess if you want your children to learn the story of Christmas, you just might want to take them into a church, not Wal-Mart.”
--National Public Radio Commentator Scott Simon
The so called “War on Christmas” debate is being fought, right on schedule in these days before the 25th. On one side are folks like Fox News Commentator Bill O’Reilly who for the past fifteen years has used his prime time TV show to rail against a culture he sees as robbing Christmas of its “true” elements. Like not allowing religious nativity scenes on public property. Having kids sing only secular, non-religious songs in concerts at school. Banning Santa Claus in public schools. Substituting the word “holiday” for “Christmas”, “Happy holidays” as a seasonal greeting versus “Merry Christmas”. Or this year, perhaps worst of all for pro-Christmas crusaders, calling a “Christmas tree” a “holiday tree”. It’s this last seasonal “sin” which touched off a Christmas controversy, right down in little Rhode Island.
As The Boston Globe reported: “Governor Lincoln Chafee…is blamed for sparking a national fight by referring to the [state’s official Christmas tree] as a ‘holiday tree,’’ for which he has been lambasted on television and in e-mails and telephone calls. He stands accused of taking the Christ out of Christmas. The governor’s office has fielded nearly 4,000 calls related to the tree, mostly from out-of-state, after the dispute made national news last week….Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin laid into the governor on the tree. ‘It’s a silly attempt to be inclusive and really has done more harm than good.’”
So livid were Ocean Staters that hundreds showed up at the official statehouse tree lighting ceremony to protest, angrily singing “O Christmas Tree” while carrying placards declaring “Saving One Christmas Tree at a Time!” Defending his decision (which had also been the policy of Rhode Island’s last governor Donald Carcieri), Chafee said, “If it’s in my house it’s a Christmas tree, but when I’m representing all of Rhode Island I have to be respectful of everyone.”
So much light and heat, all over a holiday. Or should I say a holy day? For just what is Christmas? What has the 25th and the entire season from Thanksgiving to the 1st of the year become in 2011?
Is Christmas a strictly religious celebration? Then Christmas is Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, whom they confess is God come down to earth in a child, “Emmanuel” meaning “God with us”. Christmas is Christians attending church, worshipping God in a preparatory holy season called Advent, moving towards Bethlehem in faith and hope, where that baby was born. And in that journey many Christians honor God and this miracle by carrying out acts of intentional kindness, especially to and with the poor, in food drives and charitable donations, and increased gifts to charity. Christians believe this in-breaking of God into the world heralds a new vision for all creation: peace on earth and goodwill to all people, as the angels declared. All people. And no more war says this prince of peace. No more poverty. No more despair because now God is here, all in a tiny infant born some 2,000 years ago.
Is this Christmas? Yes. Absolutely. And I love it.
But Christmas in 2011 is also about all the energy and the activities and the trappings of the season. Christmas songs on the radio, ones you’ve sung for years. The buying and giving of gifts to the tune of $877 billion, according to one estimate. Stringing bright lights on the house and in doing so somehow pushing back the darkest time of the year. Attending Christmas parties at the office and with neighbors and sending out millions of cards to reconnect with the circle of love we call our extended community. Getting some blessed time off at years’ end and just resting. Returning home for Christmas and then being with family and loved ones around a holiday table overflowing with rich food and sweet memories. Getting away on vacation and skiing or lolling on a sunny beach. Christmas is a time to pause at the end of 365 days.
Is this Christmas? Yes. Absolutely. And I love it, at least most of the time.
Now the cliché response for me as a Christian would be to surely join in on this argument about the “War on Christmas”, right? To get all offended and huffy at the substitution of “holiday” for “Christmas” ? To rail against how folks have taken Christ out of Christmas.
But not me. Because the key I think, is to not get the holiday mixed up with the holy day. To not confuse a secular celebration in December with what is for some like me, a spiritual exercise in the last month of the year. To not mistake gift giving with the gift of Christ, which Christians believe is the greatest gift God has ever given to the world. Both celebrations are great but each is now completely separate from the other. And I’m ok with that.
So here’s my Christmas and Holiday personal declaration. There was never any war on Christmas to begin with. I don’t need the culture to affirm or somehow support my personal religious beliefs, my idea of Christmas, the holy days of Christmas. That’s why I go to church and practice my faith. That’s my Christmas. I really don’t care what folks call their tree. That’s their business, not mine. I don’t expect a government sponsored event like Rhode Island’s state tree lighting to include anything religious. “Holiday” away Governor Chafee.
If I had a child I’d want them to sing “Silent Night”, not at a school assembly, but in church, on the night of the 24th, so they’d know what the song is really talking about. Religion should be learned in the home and in houses of worship, not school. If I want to see a nativity scene I’ll look at the one in my church or my living room. I don’t need one on the town green to somehow buck up my faith. If I want my nieces or Godchildren to be introduced to the Christmas story, the place to do this is not the mall. It’s in a faith community.
So Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Both work for me. Both usher in a great time of year. But each is finally separate from the other. One is personal, private and pious. One is public, fun-filled and busy. Thank God for the holidays and the holy days. It’s all good. Let’s declare a truce in the war and then be on our way to the 25th!