Some years back I wrote a piece for Alex's previous blog, Dead to My Flesh, about the Holiday Season and why having a War on Christmas makes little sense if you don't know which one you're shooting at. Since the Divine Ms Sarah, (or as I like to think of her, the Lina Lamont of the Republican Party), has just come out with a book opening her own salvo in that War, I think now's a good time to recycle my take on The Two Christmases:
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For a while back when I lived in Darkest Iowa, I shared a duplex apartment with my wacky brother Steeve and my friend Scott. One year, Scott asked me to draw some Christmas cards for him to send to his Internet friends. This was around 1990, back in the caveman days. We didn't actually have Internet access ourselves, but Scott had borrowed a friend's university account and spent a lot of his free time on a computer bulletin board based out of the University of Iowa. For a while, both Scott and I were forum moderators at that site, (despite the fact that neither of us were students at U of I and in fact I was an alumnus of Iowa State).
I drew three different designs for him. One was a parody of Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" featuring the bulletin board's Sysop. One was a fairly bland one with a picture of a computer made out of snow. The third one bore the message "Have a Happy and Blessed Christmas Season."
"You can't say that," Scott said.
"Because a lot of the people on my list are wiccans and atheists and agnostics. They'd be offended!"
Personally, I didn't see why they should. The message wasn't making any kind of religious statement; it just extended good wishes. My own attitude was, to paraphrase Bette Midler, if they can't take a blessing, screw `em. But since I was doing the cards for Scott in the first place, I acceded to his wishes and changed the message to a non-controversial "Greason's Seetings."
I think about Scott and his cards when I hear about the "War on Christmas". I suppose my experience should put me on the side of the Righteous Warriors out to protect Baby Jesus from the Evil Secularists. Somehow, though, I can't get that worked up about it. If a cashier wishes me a "Happy Holidays", she's expressing a hope that nice things happen; the same as if she had said "Merry Christmas," "Groovy Kwanzaa", "Swingin' Solstice" or "May the Great Bird of the Galaxy roost on your planet." I don't have to celebrate any of those things to recognize and appreciate nice intentions. In the same way, I don't have to consider it an affront to God if somebody says "gesundheit" when I sneeze instead of "God bless you." Take it in the spirit in which it's given.
At one time I used to get all bent out of shape about the Secularization of Christmas. I particularly detested the deification of Santa Claus. When I was in junior high and full of adolescent anger and self-righteousness, I wrote an abrasive, curmudgeonly piece on the subject which upon saner reflection I threw away. A thirteen-year-old curmudgeon is not a pretty thing. My views towards Ol' Saint Nick have mellowed since then as I have come to accept what I call The Two Christmases.
There are two holidays celebrated on December 25th. One, of course, is the Feast of the Nativity, when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. Then there's the other holiday, the Feast of Jingle Bells and Jolly Fat Men in Red Suits and Reindeer with Luminous Noses. Both holidays happen to have the same name, but they're different.
I celebrate both; and I don't see why the two need to be mutually exclusive.
Where the Christmas Warriors get it wrong is where they assume that the holiday has to be either one or the other. To a certain extent, I can sympathize with their point. I worship Christ, the holiday's namesake; and it does bother me when the earthly Babel sounds of the secular festivities drown out the song which the blessed angels sing. The Puritans felt this way and so they banned Christmas all together when they ruled England under Cromwell. Which is a funny way to honor a man who loved parties and who used feasts in his parables to represent the Kingdom of Heaven.
Christmas, as it is celebrated today, has a rich and varied tradition; sacred and secular, spiritual and commercial, tacky and sublime. There's a lot of Christmas stuff that I deeply love, despite having no connection to the Nativity story and only a tenuous connection, if that, to my religious convictions: family get-togethers, the giving of gifts, Vince Guaraldi`s piano music for "A Charlie Brown Christmas", just about any adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Thurl Ravenscroft singing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch".
When I was little, our family had a devotional booklet that we used every Christmas called The Talking Christmas Tree. Instead of setting up the Christmas tree and decorating it all at once, we'd put it together bit by bit. The first night we'd just put up the tree. The second night we'd add the lights. Then little by little we'd add more to the tree and we'd have a devotion talking about how each addition could symbolize something about God.
Now I know that most of those decorations, and the tree itself, can be traced back to pagan sources, which is why the Puritans had such a problem with the holiday. But part of the joy of Christmas comes not from purging the religious holiday of all secular dross, but rather of finding things in the holiday bramble that enrich and illuminate the spiritual aspects.
(According to one story, Martin Luther put up the first Christmas tree. Walking home one winter, he was so struck by the beauty of stars shining though the evergreens that he brought a tree home and put lighted candles in its branches so his family could see. And right after that, Philip Melanchthon invented fire insurance. This story is almost certainly untrue; other scholars trace the decorating of trees back to pre-Christian times; still, it's a good story).
It works both ways. Just as Christians can enrich their celebrations with aspects of the secular holiday, so too can Christian elements filter out into to world at large. Usually these elements are diluted: sentimental crèche scenes, platitudes of "Peace on Earth", Madonna and Child postage stamps; but God's Word does not return empty; not even when it's been wrapped in tinsel.
If we limit Christmas to only Christ - which I do believe is the most important part - then we also exclude those who aren't Christian from the holiday; we become in effect dogs in the manger. If we actually wind up driving people away from that manger, then we ain't doing Baby Jesus any favors.