I have a fairly high threshold of obliviousness regarding certain aspects of popular culture. Must See TV, Hollywood romances and stuff like that no doubt makes a whoosh noise as it whizzes over my head. Consequently, I was caught off guard by recent news of The War. I'd initially tuned the information out, thinking, as any patriotic American would, that "war" was merely an unfortunate and subversive synonym for the Freedom Spreading that we're doing in Iraq, Afghanistan and every other place we feel can benefit from a knee-deep layer of Freedom. One day, however, I accidentally listened to what one of the talking heads had to say on the news, and was absolutely terrified to find out that there was a new and more frightening war--the War On Christmas.
"War On Christmas???" I thought frantically, mind racing to conjure imagery of the North Pole under siege, Big Elves ready to die and holding heat. No, not that kind of war I discerned as I paid the TV news story more attention. This was a tad less concrete--a war, perhaps, against the very powers and principalities that the Apostle Paul warned us we would face. I listened even more intently, seeking context, substance. What I found was that a local minister had announced a major (defensive?) in the ever-escalating War On Christmas. "What signaled the affront?" I asked, eager to take up the crusade.
I watched, amused, as reporters stuck microphones in people's faces and fired away with loaded questions about whether Christ should be the focus of Christmas. On the local gospel radio station, callers weighed in on whether stores having "holiday" instead of "Christmas" sales was an affront to Christians. "OK, this is not the type of war I imagined" I thought, doing a mental compare/contrast with that other war, the one we started with whatshisname over there where folks are getting blown up daily.
On the surface this War On Christmas thing kinda struck me as odd. Basically, it's the old "War On Secularism" repackaged and re-gifted to the public like some stale fruitcake relentlessly exchanged annually by those two bickering neighbors, Sacred and Secular. That a local Raleigh minister picked up the high profile banner of this crusade, and even made it as far as that bastion of holiness--Fox News--to tout this issue is what made me pay a little extra attention this year.
A little more searching turns up that there is (surprise) a book that conveniently has the title The War On Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. Sheesh. The book was written by John Gibson, a Fox News Channel anchor. From the book description:
"Millions of Americans are starting to fight back against the secularist forces and against local officials who would rather surrender than be seen as politically incorrect. Gibson shows readers how they can help save Christmas from being twisted beyond recognition, with even the slightest reference to Jesus completely disappearing."
Oh, I get it now. Adding that to the other news stories in print and on TV, I glean that, as Christians, we are called to wage our own righteous version of jihad against those evil forces bent on destroying us, one by one, with each substitution of "Happy Holidays" for "Merry Christmas." Calls to boycott high profile merchants like Target for not being overtly Christmassy enough and groups protesting their municipalities, demanding public nativity scenes, are part of this grand War On Secularism.
Wow. I can't call it, but that sounds more like Pharisee territory to me. For those that don't know, the Pharisees were an influential sect of Jews in Jesus' day--legalistic and self-righteous men with whom Jesus would contend over matters of the spirit, mind and heart. By their own profession, they were super-religious, however, and always quick to point out where others fell short. "Hey, Jesus, why you gotta be raising people from the dead on the Sabbath?" kind of sums up their idea of big-picture thinking.
In that light, it's ironic to me that modern day Christians would feel compelled to expend so much energy on something like the War On Christmas. It boils down to a national, organized campaign of Christians threatening merchants during the, gulp, holiday season, saying, "Recognize our faith--explicitly--or be bereft of the fruits of our materialism!"
That's a sound moral argument if I ever heard one. It's even more absurd when one considers that Christmas, as we celebrate it, really isn't Christian. Nowhere in the Bible are we told to celebrate Jesus' birth, or even how to celebrate. In the fourth century, the Romans grafted the celebration that we now know as Christmas on top of the existing winter solstice festival called Saturnalia. It was a concession to existing beliefs and practices that persisted despite the adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire.
What we now celebrate as Christmas is really a syncretism of many ancient rites and beliefs considered pagan by the Christian church despite their popularity and pervasiveness. In the Bible (Jeremiah 10:2-4), the Jews are actually admonished not to adopt the practices of the gentiles, including the cutting down and adorning of trees with silver and gold, and "being dismayed at the signs of the heavens" (e.g., the winter solstice, in which the shortest day of the year gives way on the next day to the "rebirth" of the sun and the promise of light and renewal).
The nativity scenes that folks are so hell-bent on reestablishing are actually Biblically incorrect. Per the book of Matthew, the three wise men never saw the baby Jesus at the time of his birth. He was described as a young child by the time they reached him with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. King Herod, fearful of future competition from the prophesied young ruler, instructed the wise men to lead him to Jesus, and when they didn't comply, he responded by ordering the death of all male children under 2 years of age.
Other customs like the Yule log, mistletoe and holly hearken to other European practices that were decidedly non-Christian in origin. Because of that, there are a number of Christian pastors and scholars who rail against the traditional celebrations of Christmas. The European settlers who colonized America, largely Protestant, came from a religious tradition that historically downplayed Christmas, in dour counterpoint to the comparative party animals in the Catholic Church.
And none of the above even takes into account the transformation of the holiday in the 20th century into its current economic orgy, where Christmas spending alone is the deciding factor in annual profitability for much of the American retail world.
In light of that, color me confused when I read that the pastor of Raleigh's The Upper Room Church of God In Christ took out a full-page ad in The News & Observer a few weeks ago, saying, "Christmas is as American as Mom's Apple Pie and the Fourth of July" as part of a reported $11,000 media campaign to combat the de-Christianization of Christmas.
Um, OK. I'll admit that it irks me when I see someone write Xmas instead of Christmas. But I don't see how confronting cashiers who're making subsistence wages because they use a non-descript "holiday greeting" is furthering the Kingdom of God or drawing others near to Christ. In the richest nation in the world, where we still have people living in poverty, are we really preaching that our prodigal greed and consumerism is OK, as long as the big box stores that we indebt ourselves to smile and wish us a Merry Christmas? Forty years after a cartoon, A Charlie Brown Christmas questioned our societal values, the most profound thing we can do is to browbeat everyone else into celebrating the way we say to celebrate?
Wow. This is what we do with a majority? I wonder if the early Christians--the ones beaten, scourged, burned, hanged and fed to lions, all for the sake of their professed belief in the Savior we claim to celebrate with our winter reverie, imagined what they would do when the tables were turned. To hear these latter day saints tell it, those early Christians knew nothing of persecution. Death by the aforementioned means, while brutal and painful, only brings the true believer closer to an eternity of glory, while the hurt feelings, marginalization, anxiety, alienation and angst caused by someone wishing us "Happy Holidays"--that's a heavy cross to bear.
I recognize that what we now call Christmas is more of a common, American cultural observance. We exchange gifts, decorate and all that, but try to keep it somewhere between the Griswalds and the folks at www.buynothingchristmas.org. Knowing the history, all the trappings around Christmas are just that to me. If this particular style of observance fades over time, what does it matter as long as one's underlying faith remains the same? I certainly can't see the good in getting all O'Reilly'd up by some knucklehead from Fox News with a book to sell, conveniently timed to rake in the cash from thin-skinned "holiday" shoppers. As far as I can tell, Jesus wouldn't really need a marketing budget if those of us who claim to believe merely lived by his example and let that speak for itself.