I’ve been finding, over the past day or two, some real sharp and deep commentary on the “Christmas Wars.” I wanted something which would go beyond the tremendous amounts of heat, and the tiny amounts of light, in all kinds of forums (including some, unnamed, in which I’ve had the “heat” directed right at me!), that I’ve been seeing lately.
I heard Rabbi Michael Lerner on the radio this morning, but didn’t get to hear the beginning or end of what he was saying, so I took a look at Tikkun to read the whole essay. Here’s a bit of it:
Liberals and civil libertarians would be making a huge mistake to see this as merely the rantings of a few overt anti- Semites and anti-civil-liberties extremists. They articulate a legitimate concern that many Christians say privately: their children have learned that Christmas is about buying-and the person with the most expensive gifts wins!
There is a beautiful spiritual message underlying Christmas that has universal appeal: the hope that gets reborn in moments of despair, the light that gets re-lit in the darkest moments of the year, is beautifully symbolized by the story of a child born of a teenage homeless mother who had to give birth in a manger because no one would give her shelter, and escaping the cruelty of Roman imperial rule and its local surrogate Herod who already knew that such a child would grow up to challenge the entire imperialist system. To celebrate that vulnerable child as a symbol of hope that eventually the weak would triumph over the rule of the arrogant and powerful is a spiritual celebration with strong analogies to our Jewish Chanukah celebration which also celebrates the victory of the weak over the powerful. And many other spiritual traditions around the world have similar celebrations at this time of year.
The loss of this message, its subversion into a frenetic orgy of consumption, rightly disturbs Christians and other people of faith.
Yet this transformation is not a result of Jewish parents wanting to protect their children from being forced to sing Christmas carols in public school, or secularists sending Seasons Greeting cards. It derives, instead, from the power of the capitalist marketplace, operating through television, movies and marketers, to drum into everyone’s mind the notion that the only way to be a decent human being at this time of year is to buy and buy more.
That’s an analysis we haven’t heard enough of (and never will) from the mainstream media.
Then a colleague recommended an essay by James Carroll (whom I admire highly, because of that excellent Constantine’s Sword). He explains the nativity story in its original context:
The single most important fact about the birth of Jesus, as recounted in the Gospels, is one that receives almost no emphasis in the American festival of Christmas. The child who was born in Bethlehem represented a drastic political challenge to the imperial power of Rome. The nativity story is told to make the point that Rome is the enemy of God, and in Jesus, Rome’s day is over.
And goes on to explain what happened to that point, and how its disappearance fits into a pattern, an evolution (excuse the phrase) in the Church and Christianity.
In modern times, religion and politics began to be understood as occupying separate spheres, and the nativity story became spiritualized and sentimentalized, losing its political edge altogether. “Peace” replaced resistance as the main motif. The baby Jesus was universalized, removed from his decidedly Jewish context, and the narrative’s explicit critiques of imperial dominance and of wealth were blunted.
This is how it came to be that Christmas in America has turned the nativity of Jesus on its head. No surprise there, for if the story were told today with Roman imperialism at its center, questions might arise about America’s new self-understanding as an imperial power. A story of Jesus born into a land oppressed by a hated military occupation might prompt an examination of the American occupation of Iraq. A story of Jesus come decidedly to the poor might cast a pall over the festival of consumption. A story of the Jewishness of Jesus might undercut the Christian theology of replacement.
Then I took a look at beliefnet.org, where, aside from the usual blahblah about pc-excesses and banned snowflakes (from Kimberly Winston), I also found this less political, more personal, and very moving piece by Lauren Winner.
Lauren Winner started off as a Jewish kid, noticing and feeling some of the same things that so many Jewish kids experience in American schools–and especially seeing the contrasts between places like where she (and I) grew up, and places like New York City.
When I was in elementary school, I looked around my classroom at all the Christian students, felt both special and left out at the same time as they proceeded with their just-sanitized-enough-to-make-it-into-a-Virginia-public-school celebrations of all things Christmas. I was one of about three Jewish kids in my class, and I never knew quite what to think or feel about the way holidays–Jewish, Christian, or any other stripe–were treated in my classrooms. On one hand, I occasionally felt jealous that someone else’s holiday was getting all this attention. On the other hand–and bear in mind that I was a Religious Studies nerd in the making–it ticked me off that Hanukkah, which in the grand scheme of things is not a very important Jewish holiday (in fact, it doesn’t even have the Sabbath-like holiday standing of major Jewish holy days like Passover and Rosh Hashanah), was somehow the synecdoche for all things Jewish, just because it happened to fall in December. But I delighted in getting to explain Hanukkah to my classmates. I usually knew more about its origins and customs than my teachers.
I left Virginia to go to college in New York-and I have no doubt that my experience as A Lone Jew in school year after year shaped my decision to go to a college where a large portion of the student body was Jewish. I remember the first year I saw the lighting of a giant Hanukkah menorah in the center of the Columbia campus. It was, simply, extraordinary. I didn’t need to be Christian to feel like I was part of the public, part of the real America. I just needed public space to be open to my traditions, too.
But interestingly, and unusually, Ms. Winner made a conversion to Christianity. And now she sees Christmas differently, but with more nuance, and (like Lerner, and Carroll) a clearer idea of what even Christians are losing, missing, in the current Christmas “spirit.”
But I sort of freaked out last week when I walked into my bank and it was filled with Christmas trees, Santa Clauses, and a nativity scene. A bank, of course, is not a public school, and I suppose if someone felt uncomfortable, they could choose to do their banking elsewhere. But the decorations still freaked me out-and ticked me off. I imagined all my Jewish relatives and the Muslim girl in my friend’s class, having to trudge, December after December, into all those banks and hotel lobbies and grocery stores filled with Christmas. I’m not saying we need to be neurotically politically correct. Nor should we police greenery like latter-day Scrooges. We needn’t make our public squares empty. But we should be aware of the way our decisions affect our brothers and sisters in other faiths.
She goes on to explain the (quite recent, really) history of these kinds of public Christmas celebrations and displays, and then pulls out the suggestion that might get her, even as a Christian, even more heat than I’ve been taking!
But here is yet another one of life’s ironies. For me, the public Christmas bonanzas now detract from my experience of the holiday. I don’t mean to sound grim or ascetical or holier-than-thou. But here it is, the fourth week of Advent, and I have been hearing Christmas carols in the shopping mall since Halloween. “Conservative Christians” like me are, in stereotype, supposed to be outraged by the “politically correct” insistence that America’s public spaces be stripped of Christian symbols. I’m not outraged, in part because that “insistence” is exaggerated; in part because I’m not a first amendment expert; and in part because I try to focus on more genuinely spiritual concerns. It does strike me as absurd to outlaw red poinsettias. On the other hand, we Christians might also benefit from a scaling back of our public Christmas bonanzas. Do the Christmas trees in banks really help prepare us to greet our Savior? Does the fight to keep them there really embody Christian values?
I’ve now had the experience of being labelled a “bigot” and “as bad as an anti-Semite or homophobe,” and someone who “hates Christianity,” because I’ve advocated secular public schools and government, and because I’ve said that I don’t think most Christians understand how non-Christians experience the overwhelming and unwelcoming onslaught of Christmas symbols, and the insistence that they never, ever, be limited.
I said that I wished that, just for one night, others who haven’t experienced this onslaught could see what it feels like from this side. How it feels to be an outsider in your own country. It’s a silly wish, an unrealistic conceit. In fact, when I wrote it, I was thinking in the back of my head of “A Christmas Carol.” I was wishing for the kind of visits and visions which helped Scrooge.
I think that wishing for that is not in the slightest “anti-Christian.” It’s actually pro-Christian, pro-secular, pro-Muslim, pro-Jewish. It’s pro-understanding.