“Happy Holidays!” the chirpy voice rang out the last weekend of November. “Welcome to McDonald’s.”
Well, happy holidays to you, too. Any particular holiday? Arbor Day? Third Finding of the Head of John the Baptist? Of course, I didn’t say that, just gave my order and drove on through.
I sat out the Chrismas wars this year, though I saw with some gratification that the secularists made a few strategic retreats. I don’t put much stock in corporate-designated holiday greetings; I’d rather hear what bubbles forth from the clerk’s heart, whether it’s Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, or Bah Humbug.
But it’s been an interesting season. The late Oriana Fallaci declared herself a “Christian atheist.” Dennis Prager, a Jew, gets himself lambasted for defending the civic and cultural importance of the Christian Bible. Seattle puts the Christmas trees back into the airport. “Tidings of comfort and joy” — or are they?
I don’t want to belittle any of the efforts and sacrifices of our fellow combatants for freedom of religion in the public square. But I think it’s necessary to note that the Christmas of the public square — with or without the permission of the ACLU — is not all there is. And the fact that someone needs to note that shows how far, perhaps, the secularists have encroached on Christmas.
One example: Steve Ely of Escape Pod (an SF audio magazine that is a weekly favorite of mine) introduces the Christmas podcast — a story about how Santa solves some management problems — with a brief anecdote about how he’s not religious but his son has shown him the value of Christmas. If I can give joy and fun and sparkly things to my son, he said — not in those words, but that’s the gist of it — then why should I deny it to him because of my temptation to think of it as humbug. And by giving it to him, I get a little of it back myself. It’s a wise and deeply true statement and yet it reveals the gap between Christmas revealed by angels on a night some 2,000 years ago and Christmas as it’s come to be practiced some 2,000 years later.
We think of Christmas as a Hallmark special — when wandering adults come home to aging parents, enemies reconcile, children get the miraculous gift that they most dearly need. And although all those things are good, and one can find scriptural bases for all those stories — at the end the stories are too frequently cut off from their moorings, like buoys marking the location of sunken treasure whose ropes are cut, leaving searchers wandering dark waters to find bobbing indicators pointing to nothing.
“Peace!” “Joy!” and “Hope!” the Christmas cards say, and who can argue with peace, joy and hope? Except “peace” is defined as an absence of botherment; “joy” as the Christmas mood, manufactured by weeks of songs about snow and Christmas, some pine-scented candles and a lot of red and green decorations; “hope” as that present — profound or trivial — that Santa brings.
I don’t mean to denigrate any of that. “Christmas is for children,” the secular Christmas celebrators say, “and for the child in all of us,” some of them add. And again, who can argue with such a profound truth? Except that, again, it’s cut loose from the moorings. Yes, Christmas is about literal quiet, punctuated by songs, marked by the smells that hinge to memories in the human mind, the red and green colors pointing to life, and the gifts pointing to the gifts the Magi or the Gift that is Christ himself. Everything we do is for the kids — to make clear to them what the holiday means and to remind ourselves year in and year out what the holiday means. God became incarnate — God became meat (go 48 minutes into the linked podcast for a five-minute-long SF story that captures the wonder, the scandal of Christmas without apparently even being aware of it), with all the botherment, pain and suffering, and despair of earthly success that entailed for Him.
No wonder people get angry, frustrated, cynical, and depressed about Christmas. They go into the season expecting a Hallmark Christmas; they pull up the buoys and find nothing attached. The buoys aren’t bad or wrong, but the ropes have been cut. If Santa represents neither the historical St. Nicholas nor the Gift of Love from God to us, then he easily becomes a Bad Santa, hating children and mocking everything good. If Christmas light isn’t the Light that enlightens every human soul, then Christmas can become Black Christmas, a time of fear and death.
The old civil celebration used to help maintain the ropes — the Nativity scenes, the old carols. They weren’t enough alone, but combined with the religious practice of ordinary people they were a net benefit. But now we feel as if we’ve gotten away with something when a school choir gets to sing “We Need a Little Christmas,” when we can put a Nativity scene in public, casting Santa Claus among the Wise Men, when the Salvation Army gets to ring bells outside a shopping mall. Again, not bad, not bad, not bad, but not enough. And not enough even to indicate that there’s more.
In fact, that’s the saddest part of it. Not that people hear and reject, but that they don’t hear, that they think they comprehended Christmas when they were 8 years old and waiting for that special doll or baseball glove, that they don’t understand that Christmas is a feast for the intellect as well as for the body and for the senses, and that the totality of it is a feast for the spirit.
Your Nativity, O Christ our God,
Has shown to the world the light of wisdom,
For by it those who worshiped the stars were taught by a star
To adore you, the Sun of righteousness,
and to know you, the Orient from on high.
O Lord, glory to you.
Today the Virgin gives birth to Him who is above all creation,
And the earth gives a cave to Him who is unapproachable,
Angel and shepherds sing Your glory,
And Wise Men journey with star,
Since for our sake, He has come as a newborn child, who from all eternity is God.
Merry Christmas to all.