I've watched the yearly culture wars about what to say to people during the month of December, and particularly about what store clerks ought to say to customers. I have recently come to the conclusion that Christians seeking to celebrate the birth of Jesus have no horse in this race.
What caused me to come to this conclusion was the refusal of a senator from Oklahoma to participate in a Christmas parade because the Mayor had changed the name of the parade to something like "Holiday Parade." I got to thinking about Christmas parades and what and who are usually in the parades. Maybe there is a small chance that some church put a manger scene in the parade. I suspect most of the floats, bands and people are unspecific advertisements for shopping, fat men in red suits and strange references to winter.
So what does all this say about the birth of Jesus? Nothing. Why should I care what a sales clerk says to me when I buy something at Wal-Mart during the month of December? "Have a nice day" is sufficient for the rest of the year. Happy Holidays is nice as it makes a reference to three different celebrations but what about all the other religious groups that don't celebrate anything in December or non religious folk? Besides I think the real message in the store is "It's time to buy presents so come back and spend some more money." Which, unfortunately, has come to be the real meaning of Christmas.
Yet there is this massive yearly battle over whether sales clerks should say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays." Now if I happen to know the sales clerk and know that s/he actually believes in Jesus a Merry Christmas would be nice, although I'm not quite sure what "Merry" has to do with the birth of the Savior of the world. Most of the time, given where I live I have never met the sales clerk before and have no idea why s/he would say "Merry Christmas" to me. So why should Christians care what a sales clerk says to them during December?
I think the real issues are power and tradition. Some seem to think if one does not say "Merry Christmas" the myth of Christian America is being threatened by secular humanists. They think they are losing power. Worse, those people from other religious traditions are getting uppity and want some validation for their faith. So refusing to say Merry Christmas ultimately will destroy America and the people who are for free sex, drug use and allowing immigrants into the country will turn America into some kind of land of Satan (which is what the Iranians have been saying for years!).
Those of us in the Reformed tradition who remember our history know that for centuries Presbyterians didn't celebrate Christmas. We also didn't celebrate Easter, have crosses or stained glass windows in our places of worship, use musical instruments during worship or sing anything but psalms during worship but that is the subject of another blog. Presbyterians didn't celebrate Christmas partly because it was "Romanish" (meaning the Catholics did it so we shouldn't) but mainly because the celebration of Christmas in England had become a time to get drunk, dance, and generally carry on. Presbyterians didn't believe in carrying on. It wasn't that Presbyterians didn't have fun it was rather that they wanted to have holy fun. Wearing sexy clothes, puking after drinking too much and dancing into the wee hours of the morning just didn't seem very Christian to them. So they didn't celebrate Christmas.
Then the Queen of England, Victoria, got married to this Elector or something from Germany and brought the German tradition of Christmas trees to England. Songs about Yule logs came back into fashion as did St. Nicholas (now renamed Santa Claus because of a rather poor poem) who no longer left food and gifts for poor Children. He left big presents for all good children. But Yule logs came from Norse celebrations and evergreen trees from pre Christian German religions (probably some form of Druidic belief).
The modern version of Christmas (at least the shopping version) began sometime in the last 50 or 60 years. Before that kids in most families got new socks, maybe some new clothes if they had outgrown the old clothes, an orange and one toy. Rich folk went for the big spending. Santa Claus became omniscient and kept a list like the Book of Life from Revelation. In America more people had more money and the middle class started buying more and more toys for the children. And good old scientific research enabled toy companies to move from talking dolls to Wiis.
To top all this off some now believe it necessary to get the most popular toy for their child (or for themselves) so people sit outside of stores starting at 2:00 AM on the day after Thanksgiving in order to they can buy that particular toy. Early in the morning on Black Friday the doors to the stores open, the crowds rush in, (injuring or killing the poor underpaid employee who had the bad luck to be assigned the task of opening the door) and fight with other customers for that particular toy (thus the last part of my title). Christmas has become a celebration of that most important of American dreams, the increase of the Gross Domestic Product.
What does all this have to do with Jesus? Nothing, as far as I can tell. Finding some way to celebrate the birth of the second person of the Trinity as a human being (and the not so subtle message that God physically stands with the poor) I think is necessary. But somewhere in all of this we need to make a separation between the traditions borrowed from other religions and cultures, the secular celebration of economic growth and the primary idolatry in America that having more makes one better.
I suggest that we go back to giving presents that meet real human needs along with one toy. That does mean that the yearly tie or sweater has to go. I suspect most Americans have many more articles of clothing than they actually need. No, one toy and a gift the Heifer Project or some equally worthy cause is the way to go.
And outside of that? Worship and service to others on Christmas day. If God served us by sending his Son shouldn't we follow the model and serve others?
In any case I think the argument about what to say to people in December has to end. Except about cursing out the person who go the last toy that you wanted on Black Friday. I suggest we don't shop on Black Friday at all and that those who feel they must learn to be polite and kind. That would be a big and pleasant change in the language of December.