Monday, November 14, 2005

The Real War On Christmas

I haven’t finished all of my Halloween candy, let alone thought about dealing with the family logistics of Thanksgiving, and already the stores are blaring the saccharine sounds of Christmas. I can’t go into a drugstore to buy gum, a bookstore to look through the shelves, or a mall in search of a bargain without being bombarded with Christmas music. Not holiday music. Not seasonal music. And certainly not Hanukkah or Kwanza music. Christmas music.

In addition to the music, there is the ubiquitous Santas, Christmas trees, and red and green shiny wrap. And yet the news is filled with stories about the War on Christmas. Have I missed something?

I understand that Wal-Mart has instructed its employees to refrain from saying “Merry Christmas,” and to offer “Happy Holiday” greetings instead. As a Jew, this is supposed to make me feel more welcome in the store. It doesn’t.

First of all, is there a Waspier store than Wal-Mart? There is nothing ethnic about it at all. Unless you are shopping at the Wal-Mart in Beijing, the closest thing I find to ethnic food in Wal-Mart is a jar of salsa. I half expect Jerry Falwell and Martin Luther to greet me at the door with a forced “Welcome to Wal-Mart.”

Second, there are many years when Hanukkah falls so much earlier than Christmas that the only holidays that can be happy are Christmas and Kwanza, neither of which do I celebrate.

Third, what is wrong with people wishing one another Merry Christmas? December 25th is Christmas, whether I choose to celebrate it or not. What should a person say to me, “Have a nondescript Christmas”? Saying “Merry Christmas” is no different than saying “Have a nice weekend,” or “Have a good day.” Why shouldn’t I have a merry Christmas? After all I get the day off; I don’t have to deal with presents I don’t want or family I can’t stand; and people are generally on their best behavior, at least until mid-afternoon when the love of family starts to fray and people race off to the movies so they can sit in the dark and not talk to one another. There is nothing unmerry about it.

But don’t I feel alienated from my fellow Americans because I am a Jew and I don’t celebrate Christmas? Not at all. And if I did, I could do what many Jews do: get a tree, go into gift-debt, and suffer the family. Or, I could become a Christian. If I want Christmas that much, there is always that option.

I no more feel alienated from America during Christmas then I do during Chinese New Year, Ramadan, or Gay Pride Day. On the contrary, I am blessed to live in a country that has room for such diversity.

So let me be clear, if anyone wants to wish me a Merry Christmas, please be my guest.

And yet I believe there a War on Christmas, just not the one everyone seems so upset about. I read John Gibson’s book of that title, and he had to search the backwaters of America to find his war. When New York bans the tree in Rockefeller Center, then we have a war. When the White House no longer lights a tree, then we have a war. If a couple of wackos in Plano, Texas over react to the separation of Church and Lone-Star State, that is a skirmish, not a war. Gibson's book seems to be part of a general trend among conservative Christians to convince themselves that they are under attack, when in fact they are victorious. The United States is 80-something percent Christian. Relax. You won. But you've been fighting the wrong war.

The real War on Christmas isn’t the silly argument over store greetings; it is the far more powerful and subversive use of Christmas to sell stuff. Look, if you want to give gifts on Christmas, give what the Three Wise Men gave: gold, myrrh, and frankincense. You can never have too much of the first, and you can always re-gift the other two next year. Other than that, stop shopping.

The real gift of Christmas comes from God. The gift is Jesus. Christmas is the affirmation that God cares, that there is hope in times of deep despair. It is the same message taught by Hanukkah. The real war on Christmas is the one waged with weapons of mass distraction, taking our minds off the message and onto the marketing. Wal-Mart is waging war on Christmas, but not by changing its greeting. That only allows it to wage war on Hanukkah and Kwanza as well. The war Wal-Mart and every other Christmas-abusing business is waging is the war against the meaning of Christmas. If the meaning of Christmas were shopping, churches would abandon midnight mass for midnight madness sales.

And the government is colluding with the markets (surprised?). The Supreme Court allows Christmas Trees, crèches, and Hanukkah menorahs on public property because it deems them historical symbols rather than religious ones. Are you kidding! Historically, the prophets ban Christmas-like trees (see Jeremiah 10:3-4). Historically, the manger scene probably never happened, and the 25th of December is not Jesus’ real birthday. Historically Hanukkah was a military victory that had nothing to do with the Festival of Lights the Hanukkah Menorah honors.

There is nothing historical about these symbols. They are symbols of faith, hope, love, and miracles. Their value to us is not historical but spiritual. When I see a manger scene do I remind myself that only Luke (2:7) tells this story, making it historically suspect? Do I wonder why we don’t have a scene depicting the slaughter of thousands of Jewish babies by Herod in his mad attempt to kill the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:16)? No. I think of the promise of spiritual renewal that Jesus represents. When I see the Hanukkah Menorah do I think of military victories? No, I think of the promise of spiritual renewal that kindling lights in the middle of the winter’s dark represents.

The real war on Christmas is a war on the soul of every American, regardless of religion. If you are too small to welcome the message of renewal from wherever it comes, I feel sorry for you. If you are so weak as to cave to the commercials rather than reach out with love, I feel sorry for you. If you are too busy to see the real war and defeat the real enemy, I fear for us both.

Merry Christmas. And if you must succumb, my sweater size is XL.

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