October 25, 2019

Here we go again

(The "war on Christmas" hissy fit raised its head in Charleston recently. This prompted me to dust off an op-ed that I wrote on this way back in 2005 and bring it up...or down...to date. This one ran in the Gazette-Mail this week.)

I usually enjoy holiday customs and rituals, especially those sanctioned by age and tradition.

Some of the newer ones, however, get on my last nerve. One such is the recent annual ritual of “war on Christmas” outrage, a feeding frenzy of pretended persecution and pseudo-martyrdom heralded not by the singing of angels but by ... some other kind of sound.

The goal is apparently to summon the faithful to a hissy fit over things like saying “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” This apparently is seen to be the latter-day equivalent of being fed to the lions in the Roman coliseum.

As a practicing, although not entirely successful, Christian who celebrates Christmas, this seems bizarre to me. I don’t care how I’m greeted at that season, having learned as a child that it’s rude to get angry when someone wishes you well, however they express it.

But there is more to this than bad manners.

At a moral level, it’s pretty perverse when a person claiming to be a follower of Jesus walks into a big-box store containing products made by women and children in miserable sweatshops, is waited on by a person who doesn’t earn a living wage or have health insurance or vacation or paid sick days, and manages to get mad only if the worker says something other than “Merry Christmas.”

This is the kind of thing the real Jesus (remember him?) called “straining at gnats and swallowing camels.” In fact, I don’t think any of the Gospels quote Jesus as saying “Thou shalt get royally ticked off if the occasion of my birth is not marked by everyone exactly according to your liking.”

Maybe I missed that part.

At a religious level, there is something pretty blasphemous about thinking that the current annual orgy of materialism, greed, commercialism and over-consumption in a world where billions of people are desperately poor has a whole lot to do with the actual person or birth of Jesus.

As I recall, when Jesus himself was exposed to the commercialization of sacred things in the temple, he started overturning tables and raising a ruckus.

The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus was probably onto something when he said that true impiety consisted of “attributing to the gods the ideas of the crowd.”

At a semantic level, there also seems to be some confusion about the definition of persecution. Jesus was literally persecuted to death. When he warned his followers to expect the same and told them to bless and pray for their persecutors, he probably didn’t have the greeting “happy holidays” or the name of a parade in mind.

Maybe a real example would help clear things up. In 1980, three American nuns and a church worker went to El Salvador to stand with oppressed people. They did this because they took Jesus’ teachings about justice for the poor seriously.

They were kidnapped by the Salvadoran National Guard and were raped, tortured, shot and buried in an unmarked grave precisely for being faithful to the Gospel.

That was persecution.

Equating generic holiday expressions with persecution is an insult to thousands of authentic Christian martyrs, from the stoning of Stephen in the Book of Acts to the present day.

At the historical level, no one knows when Jesus was born, although most scholars would put their money on any date but Dec. 25.

The earliest church didn’t mark Christmas. In fact, in the New Testament epistle to the Galatians, Paul criticizes that congregation for observing “days, months, seasons, and years.”

By the year 200, the church father Clement of Alexandria found that the people who tried to mark the exact day were “overly curious.” Early dates from around that period set the birth in the spring or early summer.

The Dec. 25 date didn’t catch on in the Western church until the 4th century of the Christian era. This time of year was already celebrated in pagan customs honoring Saturn, Mithras, and the return of the sun after the winter solstice.

A lot of other Christmas customs, including trees, Yule logs, mistletoe and the exchange of gifts were adapted from Mediterranean, Germanic or Celtic paganism. In other words, there are a lot of reasons for the things people do that season.

Still, I think the eventual decision of the ancient church to fill the calendar with sacred days and seasons marking key events in the life of Jesus, the apostles and the saints was a wise one, even if the days don’t match up exactly or literally.

Maybe one reason some people unfamiliar with that tradition get so wired about Christmas is that they have an impoverished sense of the sacred year. Making do just on Christmas and Easter from this perspective is kind of like trying to play cards with just two in the deck.

When I buy gas on Jan. 1, for example, I don’t get worked up if the person says “Happy New Year” instead of “Happy Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord.” I don’t tell the people I’m taking my business elsewhere if they don’t say “Happy Epiphany” on Jan. 6.

It’s even OK if folks don’t wish me a happy Nativity of John the Baptist on June 24 or a pleasant Feast of St. James the Greater on July 25.

Meanwhile, I’m already starting my wish list for next Christmas. I’m asking St. Nicholas, the 4th century bishop of Myra who somehow got morphed into Santa Claus, to help the war-on-Christmas crew find something better to do next holiday season.

Maybe something Jesusy for a change.