Every year at this time we hear about the alleged “war on Christmas”. Some governor calls the tree in the capitol building a “holiday tree” or some store requires employees to say “happy holidays”. This, we are told, is an attack on Christmas.
I have trouble buying that.
Many of the same people who say there is a “war on Christmas” also believe “Jesus is the reason for the season“. I doubt that what happens in retail stores across the country brings much honor to Jesus. How does buying more and more things have anything to do with Jesus? In some twisted logic, we honor Jesus by making sure the cashier says Merry Christmas as I buy my way to happiness.
For the record, I love the Christmas season. I love singing Christmas carols, buying gifts for people, decorating my house with nativity scenes (though we leave one up all year) and trees, going to church, spending time with family. It is fun. I have no problem with buying and receiving gifts.
But I recognize that much of how we celebrate Christmas on a cultural level has more roots in paganism than Christianity. The most obvious example: Christmas trees. The evergreen trees reminded the pagans that, in the midst of winter, the sun god would return once again and summer would come.
It was reasons such as these that the Pilgrims, the early European settlers in America, waged a war on Christmas! The Pilgrims were Puritans who took the Bible very literally: if it was not commanded in the Bible, they did not do it. Well, Christmas celebration was nowhere to be found, so no Christmas!
In 1659 Massachusetts made it illegal to celebrate Christmas. Attending a church service was okay, but any sort of decorations, feasting or taking off work was forbidden. The law stated:
“For preventing disorders arising in several places within this jurisdiction, by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries to the great dishonor of God and offense of others, it is therefore ordered that whoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, shall pay for every such offense five shillings to the county.”
The first continental congress was even in session on December 25, 1789, not taking a day off for Christmas! Christmas did not become a national holiday until 1870.
Maybe we have something to learn from those Puritans. I do not think the lesson is that we should refuse to celebrate Christmas. Instead, when we Christians say “Jesus is the reason for the season” we should really mean it. Perhaps give Jesus more than an hour on Christmas eve, as if to get him out of the way so we can move on to what we really care about. Or we could just spend less and give more, as Advent Conspiracy has been reminding us.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what the trees in capitol buildings are called. It doesn’t matter if the cashier at Target or Wal-Mart says “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas”. I would say what matters more, on that last one, is whether we treat people who work in retail with dignity. Is saying “I say Merry Christmas” in a condescending voice to a tired cashier going to encourage that person to want to know Jesus? Maybe we should give Christmas cookies to the staff at Target and Wal-Mart instead. What matters most is how we represent that baby born in the manger, who we say is the reason for the season.