Is it possible at this late date to call a cease-fire in the War on Christmas?
The kind of cease-fire I am talking about is not a surrender to aggressive secularists who want all mention of Christmas, or of the reason for its celebration, erased from the public square.
I am not talking about, for example, these federal bank examiners who, had they been assigned to Bedford Falls, probably would have busted George Bailey for wishing them “Merry Christmas” instead of for losing $8,000 in deposits. That sort of insanity ought to be resisted, and (as evidenced by the apparent resolution of the Oklahoma bank kerfluffle) can successfully be resisted.
No, the kind of truce I am proposing is a plea to the group Mark Shea refers to as “Christmas Inquisitors” — those who see any use of the term “Happy Holidays” in preference to “Merry Christmas” as some kind of affront to their beliefs. This group also includes those who see something inherently wrong or sacreligious about any kind of Christmas or holiday celebration that fails to include explicit reference to the birth of Christ.
I celebrate Christmas in the religious sense as eagerly as anyone. But I respectfully beg to differ with those who insist that it is the duty of private businesses or even of public facilities and institutions to “keep Christ in Christmas.” It isn’t. Their job, such as it is, is to accommodate the desire of their customers, or of citizens, to fulfill whatever aspects of a multi-layered religious, cultural, and social occasion they wish to observe.
None other than C.S. Lewis recognized this truth decades ago. In this essay from “God in the Dock,” Lewis explains the different aspects of the modern Christmas:
“Three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious festival. This is important and obligatory for Christians; but as it can be of no interest to anyone else, I shall naturally say no more about it here. The second (it has complex historical connections with the first, but we needn’t go into them) is a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality. If it were my business to have a ‘view’ on this, I should say that I much approve of merry-making. But what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business. I see no reason why I should volunteer views as to how other people should spend their own money in their own leisure among their own friends. It is highly probable that they want my advice on such matters as little as I want theirs.”
I will interrupt Lewis’ essay at this point to note what he says about the cultural aspect of Christmas — the “popular holiday.” He basically argues that people are free to celebrate it, or not, in any way they wish, as long as it does not interfere with anyone else’s celebration or non-celebration. He sees no reason to complain about “how other people should spend their own money in their own leisure among their own friends.”
That does not sound like someone who would get bent out of shape over store clerks who say “Happy Holidays”, or people who choose to celebrate Kwanzaa, Festivus, or the Winter Solstice. I also don’t think he’d care whether or not the occasion for making merry was a “real” cultural holiday or a “fake” observance invented by one person (Kwanzaa) or even by a fictional character (Festivus), as long as no one was forcing him to participate or pay for it (which becomes an issue when public schools are involved).
He does go on to say, however, that “the third thing called Christmas is unfortunately everyone’s business. I mean of course the commercial racket.”
“The interchange of presents was a very small ingredient in the older English festivity. Mr. Pickwick took a cod with him to Dingley Dell; the reformed Scrooge ordered a turkey for his clerk; lovers sent love gifts; toys and fruit were given to children. But the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers.”
Now there are other occasions besides Christmas that carry these three “layers” of meaning — for example, weddings of religiously observant couples are 1) an occasion for celebration of a sacrament, 2) an occasion for family and friends to gather and enjoy a good time, and 3) an occasion when social convention requires gifts to be given and for the couple to acknowledge each gift individually with a thank-you note. The same is true of occasions such as graduations, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, anniversaries, birthdays, etc.
Obviously, private businesses will use cultural and social occasions to market their products and services. Wedding planners, banquet halls, bakers, caterers, makers of academic robes and class rings, florists, greeting card merchants — all of them rely on cultural/social occasions for the greater part of their profit. The same is true of Christmas, when many merchants make most or even all of their yearly profit. (One explanation for the origin of the term “Black Friday” is the belief that many retailers finally earn enough money to get out of the red and into the “black” for the year on that day.)
However, we do not expect the merchant who sells products or services appropriate to any other social occasion, to instruct or remind people of its “real meaning”. We don’t expect, for example, the owner of a bridal shop or a catering service to provide pre-marital counseling, the florist who sells us flowers for Mother’s Day to offer us advice on how to get along with our mothers, or a jeweler who sells class rings to counsel high school seniors on how to get into Harvard. So why do we expect merchants and advertisers to “keep Christ in Christmas”? Isn’t that our job, and the job of our families and churches?
Now I can hear some of you already saying “But there is far too much emphasis on the social and commercial aspect of Christmas in our society. It’s drowning out the religious significance completely. Surely you don’t think this is a good thing?”
Of course it is not a good thing. Even more than 50 years ago, in post-war England, Lewis saw that the relentless commercialization of Christmas “gives much more pain than pleasure” to the average person.
“You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try to ‘keep’ it (in its third, or commercial, aspect) in order to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th everyone is worn out — physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.”
However Lewis did not propose any “solution” other than personally refusing to take part in the “racket”.
“We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don’t know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I’d sooner give them money for nothing and write if off as a charity. For nothing? Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance.”
So how do we resist the tidal wave of commercialism and/or political correctness that threatens to engulf us every holiday, er, Christmas season? We pray. We think about what is important to us and about the values we wish to uphold. And we make merry in whatever way is appropriate to our situation. If that means opting out of gift exchanges or sending cards, fine. If that means saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” fine. If it means saying “Happy Holidays” in an attempt to be more inclusive, that’s OK too. After all, there is more than one holiday in the holiday season… it encompasses Thanksgiving and New Year’s as well as Hannukkah and other religious, cultural and ethnic observances such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Lucy’s Day, St. Nicholas’ Day, Boxing Day, and Epiphany or “Old Christmas”.
And on that note… peace on earth, goodwill to all, Happy Holidays AND Merry Christmas!