This post has been a long time coming. This time of the year is always difficult for me, as I feel torn between holiday cheer and resentful drear, obligation and celebration, hope and despair.
I am so very sick of the war on Christmas.
“Oh, good,” some of my Christian friends may be saying at this point, “me too! Why can’t people just put Christ back into Christmas?”
No, dear friends and readers, that’s not what I mean. I’m sick of the phrase “put the Christ back in Christmas” and all of the entitlement it entails. I wish it would all just stop. Now, I understand that may not sound terribly Christian of me, but hold on. You may say that your anger and demands are for the sake of Christ, and I wouldn’t want to disparage your motives. I’m not in your head and I don’t know what you’re thinking. Yet there’s a painful sticking point in that concession, and it’s one that bears hearing out. Saying “put the Christ back in Christmas” pretends, even for the space of that second, that Christ is something that can be moved and removed by man. It implies that Christ’s presence in the holidays for us, as individuals, is somehow dictated by the actions of society. I don’t like to believe that my experience of Christ this time of year is somehow beholden to the displays in Macy’s windows. After all, the force of love I am enthralled by is greater than any one man, any one store, any one society. How weak would I have to be if my sacred observances were somehow shattered by a greeting card?
“Now, it’s bigger than that”, someone inevitably says. “The fact that people are no longer observing Christmas as a Christian holiday shows how secular society has become, and this is supposed to be a Christian society.”
Hold. On. Please.
For one thing, the Christmas smashed all over billboards is hardly Christian. The Christmas touted in the commercials telling our adorable little tots that this monster truck or that Barbie doll will somehow complete them are anything BUT Christian. The promise of the holiday that society has started to hold on to is almost in direct contradiction to the Gospel. The “spirit of Christmas”, as it is sold, is that the holiday itself has some ability to heal. We’re told, in less than guarded symbolism, that if we buy the right things, eat the right food, invite the right guests, and have the right attitude that we will somehow achieve a transcendent state. The holiday has become a spiritual act of reaching for sacred healing, but that sacred healing is not tied to God, Christ, or the ideals of Christianity. It is a secular sacredness, and as such treating the holiday as holy is tantamount to idol worship.
After all, it is jolly ol’ Santa Claus receiving the sacramental cookies and milk, not God.
Christmas, the holy mass of Christ, was once not even Christmas at all. You’ve got the Germanic Yule and the Roman Saturnalia blended in with Christianity, as the Roman empire expanded and brought in new territories and started to expand the practice of tolerance towards other religions. In order to lower the amount of infighting between sects and oppression as people traveled from district to district, the Roman calendar morphed to overlap the holidays so that people’s observances were not as conspicuous. It is ironic, then, that a holiday once tweaked to help avoid oppression and foster inclusiveness has become such a battleground.
Honestly, I don’t think Christmas is the real problem. I think that Christianity has become the real problem. In the United States, Christians have a huge entitlement complex that has become an idol above God. We say that this is a Christian society and anyone that acts against that is out of line, ignoring the fact that we are all equal citizens under the law and Christians are not owed privilege or protection to any greater degree than their neighbors. We act affronted when anything we deem as untoward is allowed to continue, no matter how innocuous it is. We bicker and argue and fight constantly, sending our representatives to the evening news and gleefully hacking to bits anyone who dares to disagree with them.
Here, in this season of the Magi, when we celebrate the sacred gifts laid at the feet of Christ, I feel that Christians in America have started praising three other gifts, the gifts of the anti-Magi, laid at the feet of our own ego. We have swallowed these gifts whole and they threaten to destroy us. They are entitlement, disdain, and division. Gifts like that are born of evil and exercised at great personal cost. But open your eyes, brothers and sisters, and see how we worship them! Hear the entitlement in the voice of the person telling the Jewish shop owner to put the “Christ” back in “Christmas” when they hand up a Happy Holidays banner. Hear the disdain in the voice of the mother who, when hearing that a classmate of her child’s wouldn’t come to the Winter Program because they don’t celebrate holidays, says, “Well, isn’t that just what’s wrong with this country?” Look at the division when someone goes on Facebook to beg for tolerance and they are told that they are why Christianity is failing in this country.
I have so many friends who say they can’t stand to go to church, that every time they hear someone is a Christian they instantly feel uncomfortable around them, that they believe in Christ but not the church.
I feel like my soul is just shredded, absolutely shredded, by the holiday season.
Christianity is not owed anything by society. Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Because you are Christian, everyone ought to respect you, respect everything you say, and never cause negative consequences for any of your actions.” In fact, it says quite the opposite. It tells us not to be surprised when we’re hated and persecuted. So why are we so surprised? Because we have idolized our own society. We idolize the constitution, idolize free speech, idolize the symbolism of our holidays. We worship those things as sacred and then react like vipers when they are threatened. Because we blindly believe they should be perfect, we accept nothing less: even when, or perhaps especially when, the evidence all around us says otherwise.
We bear a tragic consequence for that behavior, but society bears one even worse as people turn from love to disdain and hatred.
So in this time of year, as we dream of the Magi traveling by the light of a sacred star, carrying gifts of adoration and penance to a pure and holy infant king, let’s think about the gifts that we ourselves need to offer. Not the perfect consumerist presents wrapped in expensive wrapping paper and laid down at the altar of a tree whose symbolism we’ve forgotten, but the gifts we offer each other.
Let’s stop being the anti-Magi.
Photo from Daniela Munoz-Santos