War on Christmas
This idea of a “War on Christmas” disturbs me on many levels. Mostly I’m just sad. People take up this call to war as a knee jerk reaction. Clearly they feel very strongly about it. I understand that they feel personally threatened, but let’s take a look at the reality.
I’ve not heard anybody suggest that Christians can’t have trees or nativities in their homes, unlike the Native Americans who had pipes, spirit shirts and drums forcibly removed from them by legislation. I’ve not heard anyone suggest that in order to say “Merry Christmas” you must be wearing a cross or other symbol specifically identifying you as a Christian, like the Jews in Germany. I’m still hearing Christmas carols, even ones with religious references, on the radio and in the stores, unlike the African slaves who were forbidden to sing traditional songs on the plantations. So from a less reactionary perspective, if there is a war on Christmas it certainly does not appear to be directed personally.
However, I have heard it suggested that all of those things be forbidden in ‘public’ forums. Specifically that they should be absent from governmental and educational institutions. So let’s examine this by going back in time about 50 years and using an analogy or two. For the educational argument let us equate being Christian with belonging to the local country club. The question becomes: Is it appropriate for the teacher to stand in front of the class and say something like, “Looking forward to having a great time with all of you tonight at the party at the club.” So far, not a problem but let’s look a little closer. 80% of the class, 16 of the 20 students, come from families that have memberships to the country club. They’ll all be at the party and it’s pretty much all anyone’s been talking about all day. But what about the other 4 students?
1 of the other 4 kids also comes from a wealthy family. They are new to the area and don’t have a membership yet. Chances are good Dad’s boss will extend an invite, but attendance at the party is still a maybe. The second of the 4 comes from a wealthy family but the parents feel strongly that the extravagance of the country club is inappropriate. They won’t go because they have chosen not to be included in the group. The third kid comes from a wealthy family as well. In fact, the parents applied for membership at the country club. They were refused membership because they were black. (In modern terms this could be GLBT, Jewish, or the ‘wrong’ sort of Christian.) The final kid does not come from wealth (isn’t Christian at all) and has no chance of being included in the club unless they turn their back on their own family.
There is a reason many schools have a policy that you can’t pass out party invitations at school unless everyone in your class is invited. Excluding classmates is a subtle form of bullying. It’s even more unacceptable when it comes from the figures of authority, the teachers and staff. Having a winter break instead of a Christmas break is not an attack on Christmas. It’s just an attempt to be inclusive of the entire student body. ‘Tis the season, after all.
With the government, the issue is broader than bullying. When the government excludes the minority in a statement, the implication is to exclude that same minority from participation in the government. This is standard in a lot of places in the world, but it goes against everything I’ve been taught that the United States stands for. The analogy is the Civil Rights movement. Because of the way this is taught, many of us believe this movement was just about integration. It was about where you sit on the bus and not having separate schools, hospitals and water faucets. It would surprise a lot of people educated in the public school system to learn that black people were not allowed to vote. In fact, even when black people were given the right to vote there were a lot of people who didn’t agree and who made extra rules at their local polling places to continue to keep black people from voting.
When the government puts up a Christmas tree it says Christians are welcome here. That’s great if you are a Christian. The problem is that it’s the government’s responsibility to say ALL citizens are welcome here regardless of their religious views. That’s what our constitution says. That’s what the flag stands for, what we “pledge allegiance” to. But we like decorating at this time of year. It’s fun. It’s festive. We are accustomed to having decorated trees. And some people, like governors and the president live in public housing. Shouldn’t they be allowed to practice their religion too? Sure they should.
The Governor or the President should be allowed to put up their Christmas tree (if they so desire), but the Governor’s manor and the White House should probably be a little more inclusive. A “holiday tree” seems like a pretty fair compromise to me. Making a clear distinction between the family and the office also seems like a pretty reasonable approach to me. If there is a war here it doesn’t seem to be against Christmas, but for accountability and inclusion. It’s an issue of civil rights not personal religious expression.
Those are the things people talk about when they say there’s a war on Christmas. That’s why I say it’s a knee jerk reaction. But I actually believe there IS a war on Christmas. I just think the blame is being misplaced.
I celebrate Yule. I mark the winter solstice. My celebration is not so much about gift exchanges as it is about gratitude. The winter solstice is the longest night of the year. It’s a time of quiet reflection. It’s also about the returning of the light, as from this point the days will start getting longer again. Silent Night, holy night. The sparkle of starlight against the snow on a clear crisp winter evening. Making connections and acknowledging the support of the community that gets me through the long winters. These are the things that were important to me when I identified myself as a Christian. These continue to be the things important to me now.
Hanukah is also a celebration of the light and of gratitude. The story is that against all odds, and outside of reasonable expectation, the presence light (the symbol of YHWH), continued to burn in the synagogue until the supply of oil could be replenished. There are gifts involved in the celebration, but traditionally these are more a small token of thanks. Unless you live in America.
The consumer culture has upped the ante for everyone regardless of traditional religious practice. Santa says that our children’s desire for toys and treats should be answered. I know plenty of Jewish and Islamic practitioners in the U.S. have decorated trees because it’s what American’s do. Everyone exchanges gifts at this time of year regardless of their spiritual practices. It’s almost like taxes the way the mailman, and the garbage man, and the paper carrier and all the other people who provide regular services show up with a “Christmas Card” this time of year. There is also the push to get all your charitable giving done before the end of the 4th quarter.
That’s what Christmas means to me. That’s what Christmas means to a lot of people, even if they don’t admit it. Even people who are Christians, if they live in the United States, often have associations with Christmas that are outside the religious. All the “Merry Christmas” in the world isn’t going to change that perception. “Merry Christmas” with my latte, my grocery receipt, my charge card receipt, and fighting through a line in the toy store simply reinforces it.
So let’s stop the war on Christmas and work a little harder at Peace on Earth Good Will Towards All People.