Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Every time we use MERRY CHRISTMAS as a weapon, Baby Jesus starts to cry


Every December, sure as the turning of the Earth, the Great American Holiday Debate begins another round.  Likely every one of us has had the experience of witnessing a cheerful "Happy Holidays" being met with a "MERRY CHRISTMAS" that sounds not so much like a wish for peace and goodwill as a declaration of war.  Jesus is the reason for the season, they proclaim, and "Merry Christmas" is the only proper greeting at this time of year.

The season is what it is:  the onset of winter.  Days grow shorter, nights grow longer, the air grows colder, and our world feels darker as we approach the time of Winter Solstice.

Throughout human history, humans developed many traditions, holidays, and celebrations to make the season bright while awaiting the return of the light.  Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas are, in fact, rooted in other and more ancient celebrations, not with the religious observation of the birth of Jesus.  The only reason Jesus now has anything to do with this particular season is because a handful of bishops in the fourth century made it so.  According to biblical scholars, Jesus was probably born in the spring.  The church calendar was developed for liturgical purposes, not for historical accuracy.

It's also fair to say that the Great American Greed Fest, beginning as early as Labor Day and increasingly crowding out the traditional celebrations of fall, has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus; nor would Jesus likely want anything to do with it.  That this cultural holiday bears the name of "Christmas" is simply an artifact of the religious roots of the culture in which it developed.  Some Christians, looking with dismay at what the American Christmas has become, do not lament but rather welcome separating the secular aspects of the American winter holiday from the religious holiday of celebrating Christ's birth.

Yet the cultural holiday, even apart from any specifically religious elements, does have its positive side.  It's not all greed and materialism and smashing in thy neighbor's head to compete for a cheap computer on Black Friday.

Against the lengthening times of darkness, we light candles and adorn our homes with colorful lights.  We deck the halls with holly and spruce and we decorate an evergreen tree, all to remind us that even in the Earth's time of dormancy, life endures.  Red and green and silver and gold brighten the bleak midwinter.  We gather with friends and families and coworkers and neighbors in song and story and dancing and feast.  We tell tales of mythical figures, ancient and modern.

And, at our best, we invoke the spirit of giving, generosity, love, and compassion, not only in the gifts we give to friends and family but also to the help we extend to our neighbors in need at this cold, dark time of year.  We take time in solitude, we gather in community, pausing for contemplation and reflection and taking stock of our lives as the year draws to a close.

As an American who firmly believes in religious liberty for all, I welcome the trend towards a more inclusive label for our year-end festivities.  Personally, I prefer referring to our broader cultural celebration as the Winter Solstice, something all inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere have in common, but the popular designation "The Holiday" serves well enough, even if it sounds a little less poetic.

In making our holiday season inclusive, we are not denying Christianity, only shedding the long-standing illusion--reinforced in times past by the dominant culture--that everyone in our society is Christian.  We are evolving beyond the idea that the First Amendment freedom of religion means merely freedom to choose your favorite flavor of Christianity:  We are growing into the understanding that freedom of religion means freedom to practice any religion, as well as freedom to practice no religion at all.

While it's not true that Jesus is the reason for the Winter Solstice season, it is certainly true that Jesus is the reason for the specifically Christian commemoration of his birth.  As long as we realize that some people celebrate the former but not the latter, we can all get along in peace.

And for those who do celebrate the holy day of Christmas, please remember:  "Merry Christmas" is a wish for peace on Earth, not a challenge to a duel.