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Christmas doesn't belong to anybody
You don't have to be a veteran of the War on Christmas to appreciate what the holiday means to all Americans
There’s plenty of room for everyone to take something of value from Christmas. (Photo by Sixteen Miles Out on Unsplash)
One of my most delightful tasks during the last couple decades of my newspaper career was picking the winning entry in our annual children’s holiday art contest, which would become a sort of greeting card on our front page on Christmas Day. Of course, this being the United States of America, the task was soon invaded by politics. It was surely my own fault, because on one particular Christmas Eve a dozen or so years ago, I had ordered up a tiny red caption atop of a child’s sweet drawing of a Christmas tree. “HAPPY HOLIDAYS,” it said.
Yes, friends, I was soon impressed into combat in the War on Christmas — a foot soldier was I, alongside such leading if also unwilling warriors as Barack Obama, the CEO of Starbucks and the entire legal team at the ACLU. This is old stuff these days, because right-wing commentators have trotted out the claim for almost 20 years now — that is, that folks like newspaper editors are turning the nation away from its traditional values by not reflexively using the words “Merry Christmas” at this time of the year.
To me, it seemed only polite to choose a seasonal greeting that wouldn’t exclude good wishes to people who don’t celebrate Christmas — like the kind Muslim woman who sat just outside my office, whose spirit gave the newsroom its heart, or the Jewish editor on the local news desk, whose insightful questions improved the work of every reporter he encountered. I didn’t, in fact, avoid “Merry Christmas” because I’m an anti-Christian warrior, as callers to a local radio talk show and some anonymous callers to my voicemail asserted. Have I mentioned, by the way, that I’m the son, grandson, brother, nephew and cousin of Christian clergy?
As culture wars go, this one about the supposed War on Christmas has more staying power than actual consequence. It’s not like a fight over removing books from school libraries or changing what kids are taught about American history and human sexuality, because the outcome of those battles can alter the opinions and cultural sensibilities of a generation. This is just about words, really. After all, it has been quite a while since Christmas was mainly a religious holiday in this country, and that was true long before Fox News discovered how profitable inciting cultural conflict can be. Christmas these days is more a social event and cultural phenomenon than a religious celebration.
That’s not to detract from the importance Christians attach to the stories of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels, nor the value the church places on celebrating that birth. Even a lot of people who aren’t wedded to the literal story — that is, of shepherds in the field and angels in the heavens, and God appearing on earth in Bethlehem — find the annual Christmas observance to be spiritually uplifting.
Of course, it was a clever bit of marketing by 4th century Christians to link the nativity story to a winter solstice celebration that had long been observed by pagans. And the particular rituals associated with Christmas — a decorated tree, lights, gifts, a Yule log — have no relevance to the Christian faith at all. So you could argue that Christmas was a non-religious tradition before it gained a spiritual overtone, and that the real tradition is one that isn’t tied to dogma.
But it’s also true that a hearty “Merry Christmas” isn’t necessarily aimed at excluding anybody. What we think of as the spirit of Christmas — good will toward all, the warmth of being with those we love, a spirit of hope emerging from the notion of the almighty visiting ordinary folks — isn’t the province only of the shrinking share of Americans who say they are Christian. That spirit, in fact, belongs to everyone.
Just under two-thirds of Americans now identify as Christian, down from 90 percent a half-century ago. And in the decades to come, demographers say, Christianity will continue to shrink as other religions grow in America, so that a half-century from now, perhaps only 4 in 10 Americans will claim to be Christian. There’s no indication, however, that Christmas — that is, the Christmas that is a cultural phenomenon and secular holiday — will shrink in importance as its observance as a religious celebration diminishes.
Yet it’s hard to imagine Christmas without the story of Bethlehem, and the good news is that there’s plenty we can all celebrate in that story, whether or not we subscribe to the tenets of the faith that arose from it. Imagining the infant Jesus puts us in mind of the purity of children, creatures who are not yet tainted by the resentments and burdens we soon enough load upon them — which might make us more attentive to the their needs. The story of the three magi suggests how little earthly power really matters in the context of all creation. And consider the idea of arguably the most influential person of all time being born into poverty, bedded down alongside farm animals in a stall: What does that say about wealth’s value, finally?
The joy of Christmas, then, isn’t something that belongs only to those who claim to follow the teachings of the New Testament. No, the season of peace is broad enough to encompass all people. It doesn’t depend on the words we use, but the intent ought to be clear in any seasonal greeting you choose: Joy, peace and good will toward all.
To each of you, then, here’s a season’s greeting: I wish you a wonderful season, however you may celebrate it, and, in the context of my heritage, I’ll say that I hope you have a Merry Christmas. And, as Tiny Tim said in Charles Dickens’ tale of the transformative power of Christmas, God bless us, every one.
Thank you for joining me on our common ground, this America. This abbreviated edition of The UPSTATE AMERICAN is the last of 2022, and we are so grateful for your readership.
We’ll be taking next week off, and we will be back in touch next year.
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