Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Christmas Wars

The Christmas season always brings controversy in its wake. Often it has to do with nativity scenes in public spaces. Schools have to decide how much – or how little – to include music that mentions the birth of Jesus in their holiday programs. Most decide to omit any reference to Christ (or even the word Christmas), while including references to Santa Claus, who ironically was originally a Christian saint named Nicholas.

This year the annual Christmas War erupted in the heartland when the mayor of Charleston, West Virginia, unilaterally decided to change the name of the city’s Christmas parade to “Winter Parade.” Christians in the city and beyond saw it as an attack on Christianity. The outrage was so severe that she was forced to retract her decision and change the name back to the Christian version.

On the other side of the political spectrum, some churches this year are using their outdoor nativity scenes as a form of social protest against U.S. immigration policies. For example the Claremont United Methodist Church in California has redesigned their nativity scene to picture Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as border detainees, each figure separated from the others, inhabiting their own chain-link cage with a barbed-wire top.

The most regular holiday battleground is whether to say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” What do we put on our Christmas cards (if we still send them) and what do we say to our neighbors as we greet them on the street? Our president has said that under his presidency we are allowed to say “Merry Christmas” again. I didn’t know I had been forbidden to say it.

The truth is that that the December holiday season is older and more universal than Christianity. The date of Christmas was originally an ancient Roman holiday called Saturnalia, which the fourth century church rebranded to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Celebrations were originally centered around the winter solstice, which on the calendar of the time fell near the 25th, whereas nowadays it is between December 20 and December 23. (This year the solstice is at 11:19 PM on December 21.)

Acknowledging this astronomical pattern nearly all religions – including Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Wicca and Neo-paganism - have holy days in December. In the 20th century the holiday of Kwanzaa was added to the list. December – particularly around the winter solstice – is a holy time for many faiths and is not the sole property of Christians.

Personally I am thrilled that so many religious traditions observe this season when the darkness wanes and the light begins to increase. I do not see it as a threat to Christianity to acknowledge the religious diversity that exists in our country and the world. In fact I see it as confirmation that there is a cosmic spirituality that transcends cultural and religious differences.

Because I am a Christian I say “Merry Christmas” when my holy day nears, and “Happy Advent” until then. To my Jewish friends I say, “Happy Hanukkah.” I will gladly accept other religious greetings that come my way from friends of different spiritual traditions. My atheist and humanist friends can greet me any way they want. I am not threatened but enriched by this variety.

As I see it, the holiday season is not a time to wage cultural battles with people of other faiths or of no faith. It is not a time to draw distinctions between people and fight over words. For me Christmas is a time to put on the Spirit of Christ and try to represent my Lord as graciously as I can to everyone I meet. The best way that Christians can honor the one whose birth we celebrate is to incarnate Christ for others at this time of year. When people glimpse Christ – however imperfectly – in our lives, words, deeds, and attitudes, then we are truly embracing the spirit of the season. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Very well put! thank you