Saturday, December 24, 2005

christmas or holidays?

We inhabit a pluralistic society, and the question of whether we wish people a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is the presenting issue that tests who we are and how we live together. I have listened to the predictable arguments on each side---some Christians who nostalgically remember a time when this was not an issue, and some others who speak loudly and urgently (and at times abrasively) for tolerance, and I have found the arguments on each side unsatisfying. I have wondered about what might be there, just beneath the surface, and a couple of thoughts have emerged. I have concluded that there is something to be gained by continuing to call this the Christmas season, at least in the heartland of the Carolinas.

Even in Charlotte, where church-going is an accepted and even an encouraged practice, the first signs of a post-Christian culture have surfaced. This will become more obvious on December 24, when the Panthers suit up to play the Cowboys at 1:00 p.m. Prayers prior to NBA games have gone by the wayside. And yet I know that our local culture depends on a residual Christian practice of generosity in gathering toys for children, housing for evacuees, and funding for service agencies. We can reflect on spirituality as a replacement for institutional religion, but when the social heavy-lifting is needed, congregations and the people who gather in them and disperse from them are rounded up as the usual suspects.

If this is a season of giving, it strikes me as appropriate to remember the reason for the season, and the gift of Jesus Christ, which is, at least in our historic memory, at the heart of the activity. If this seems arrogant or particularist, remember that many of the followers of Jesus intentionally give beyond themselves, to people outside their comfort zones, at this time of year. If there is no Christianity, there is no Christmas. And if there is no Christmas, in Charlotte, North Carolina, the holiday experience is pushed to the edges of our conciousness. This becomes instead the entry into winter, nothing more than the onset of twenty or so bowl games. Many of us enjoy at least a few of the bowls, but can you imagine being given time away from work to watch them? Can you envision a gift exchange set in the context of the Insight Bowl?

If we lose Christmas, can the loss of the spirit of giving be far behind?

There is another reason to keep Christmas, and this is more subversive. I am convinced that Christmas does not really belong, exclusively, to Christians. I have listened for years to criticisms of folks who only attend services once a year, at Christmas, or maybe twice (including Easter). And then I realized that perhaps I was missing the point. Christmas is about grace, gift, the desire to come home, the miracle of birth, the wonder of a child. The music, the poinsettias, the candles engage all of the senses. Maybe this is the time of the year when we get our message right, and share it with the most passion and clarity.

Further, I began to perceive that the marketplace’s fascination with Christmas was not all bad either. I began to have fun with the terrible music that emerges this time of year--everyone from the Brady Bunch to Barry Manilow to Neil Diamond seems to have recorded Christmas music---but I have treasured Ray Charles’ version of “Little Drummer Boy” and the Blind Boys of Alabama’s “O Come All Ye Faithful”. Television offerings are relentless. I wonder if Nick and Jessica will share Christmas with us this year (my hunch is not), but I look for Charlie Brown and the Grinch, and I usually find them.

When the marketplace grasped Christmas, to be sure for its own purposes, the Christian faith had an entry into the culture. We were not always able to control how the market communicated out story, but make no mistake, it was our story; think of Linus reading the second chapter of Luke, from the King James Version of the Bible.

It’s true that Christians have complained about the commercialization of Christmas, and now that the commercialization seems to be more generic, we are complaining about that too. We Christians are not at our best when we are continuously whining and complaining. My small argument for staying with Christmas benefits both people inside the church and beyond it. We are at our best when we are giving beyond ourselves. And we are surely at our most joyful when we don’t take ourselves so seriously.

So, let the muzak play! Let the bells ring! Joy to the world!


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