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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Merry Christmas! (It's not an endangered expression)

We had a lively discussion at our last Session meeting about the words "Season's Greetings." One of our Presbyterian Women circles had hung a piece of poster board in the narthex for members to write Christmas greetings to one another. A few Session members thought it should be changed to "Merry Christmas."

They pointed out that a church, of all places, ought to be where people are perfectly comfortable using the word "Christmas."

I'm quite sure the PW member wrote "Season's Greetings" in all innocence. She could just as well have written "Merry Christmas." She had no idea she was stepping into the middle of an ongoing debate about the so-called "War on Christmas."

Is there such a "war?" I have my doubts. I think the whole concept of a War on Christmas is something TV pundits dreamed up in order to boost their ratings. Of course there are secular contexts, like department stores, that have to be mindful of their Hanukkah shoppers as well as their Christmas shoppers! Most reasonable people never thought this was a problem until some TV commentator told them it was.

A friend of mine, David Leininger, addressed this subject in a sermon circulated online. He says it better than I could, so I think I'll just let him speak for me:

It has always felt good for me to say [Merry Christmas]. And, to be honest, I never worried much about it. I have tried to be somewhat sensitive and not extend the wish to my Jewish or Muslim friends. That would have made no sense, but I have never felt particularly reluctant to say it. Have you?

What brings it to mind is this bizarre concern that some people have been supposedly feeling in recent years about being prevented from wishing folks, "Merry Christmas." Apparently, it all started when somebody on FOX News started a "Christmas Under Siege" campaign noting that many businesses were not wishing shoppers, "Merry Christmas" upon the completion of their transactions, but rather something innocuous and non-specific like, "Happy Holidays." The ultra-right wing John Birch Society said the same thing in the 1950s calling it a conspiracy concocted by the Godless United Nations. Not to be outdone, Focus on the Family's James Dobson started something called the Alliance Defense Fund running a project with the motto: "Merry Christmas. It's okay to say it." Jerry Falwell launched a "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign," with promises to file suit against anyone who spread "misinformation" about how Christmas can be celebrated in schools and public spaces. He said he had 750 lawyers who were ready to pounce if, for example, a teacher were muzzled from leading the third graders in "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Of course, those 750 lawyers did not come cheap, so your tax-deductible contributions were most welcome to insure the success of this important venture.

One of the FOX News folks, John Gibson, even published a book called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. Huh? I am a liberal, and proud of it, but the only thing I have ever plotted at Christmas is how to survive without going into bankruptcy.

Truth is, America has a complicated history with Christmas, going back to the Puritans, who despised it and considered the celebration un-Christian. The concern that Christmas distracted from religious piety continued even after Puritans faded away. In 1827, an Episcopal bishop lamented that the devil had stolen Christmas "and converted it into a day of worldly festivity, shooting, and swearing." 

Christmas began to gain popularity when it was transformed into a domestic celebration, after the publication of Clement Clarke Moore's Visit from St. Nicholas and Thomas Nast's drawings in Harper's Weekly that created the image of a white-bearded Santa who gave gifts to children. The new emphasis lessened religious leaders' worries that the holiday would be given over to drinking and shooting and swearing, but it introduced another concern: commercialism. And, we have been battling that ever since, with a notable lack of success -- and to the great relief of the nation's retailers who do their best business of the year just prior to Christmas.

These days, the "defenders" of Christmas are not just tolerating commercialization -- they are insisting upon it. Shop at the places that will wish you, "Merry Christmas," not just, "Happy Holidays."

Enough already! Christmas is just getting caught in the political crossfire. We are living in an America that, I am convinced, is not nearly so divided as some folks who have been exploiting us want us to believe. The vast majority of us agree on the vast majority of issues -- social, political, theological, whatever. There are some fringe issues about which we might disagree, but so what? We do not have to agree on everything to successfully live and work together -- ask any husband or wife. My advice is simply this: do not get caught up in these controversies. They are not worth it, they serve no purpose except to those who are trying to exploit them and us, and they certainly do not reflect well on us as Christians.

All I want for Christmas this year is grace -- just grace. The story of Christmas is, after all, at its heart, a story of grace. The coming of Jesus Christ into our world is the affirmation of God's unmerited favor to us. Look again at that little New Testament "postcard" (it's hardly long enough to be called something as highfalutin as an "epistle") to Titus: "For the grace of God that brings salvation ... Jesus ... has appeared to all ..." (Titus 2:11). Grace -- the essence of Christmas.

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