Thursday, December 7, 2006
The best way to “take back Christmas”
Early this week I joined a friend for Christmas shopping in Memphis. I noticed that both shopping centers we visited had speakers set up in the parking and pedestrian areas outside spreading melodious Christmas cheer in the form of traditional carols. The Barnes & Noble store had a taped rendition of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” being sung while I shopped for the latest books on politics.
All this reminded me that the recent culture wars have made a zig-zag to the right of late: “Christmas” is back in style at the mall. “Happy Holidays” will no longer suffice. Now full fledged Christmas carols are the “in” music once more!
During my lifetime American Christians have done a 360-degree turn in their attitudes toward Christmas. Perhaps I should say, they have done a 360 on their attitudes toward the “public observance” of Christmas.
Some of you who are regular readers of my column will know that I regularly remark on how much things have changed in the short span of my lifetime. For example, my own religious tradition — influenced by the austerity of John Calvin and later by Scotland and the English Puritans — downplayed all festivals and holidays of the Christian calendar.
This was done to emphasize the one holy day expressly enjoined by the New Testament, namely the Lord’s Day, or Christian Sabbath. Thus, even though local churches began observing Christmas as early as the 1860s, Presbyterians did not officially note the existence of Christmas as a holiday on the calendars printed by the denomination until 1961! (We are slow to embrace change, and the rest of you will just have to bear with us!)
The calendars of our church colleges and my seminary in Virginia used to refer to Winter Holidays — God forbid that you would actually observe Christmas! Of course, those prohibitions were observed in the breach during my lifetime — but I did inherit a certain disposition toward simplicity from my austere religious ancestors.
My grandmother used to tell how the Christmas tree on their farm in Missouri was not put up until Christmas Eve. She and her siblings would string popcorn to hang on the tree, and the other decorations consisted of decorations cut from paper, along with apples, candy canes, and so forth, that could be hung on its branches.
Then the children were ushered out of the parlor while “St. Nicholas (NOT Santa Claus, came), and then they would be brought back in to see the tree lighted (with real candles), but that for only a few moments as real candles on a live tree were extremely dangerous. Their presents would consist of nuts, candies, and oranges — a real delicacy in the 1880s when my grandmother was a child. One year she received a china doll. Otherwise, the presents were home-made gifts — clothing, in the main — for the family, while not poor, worked hard on their little farm. Everybody had to pitch in.
Grandmother said that the lighting of the tree on Christmas Eve was about the only time the family used the parlor in the winter, as it was not heated, and during the cold months they all congregated in the kitchen, where a big stove kept everyone warm. There was no electricity. So Christmases were simple. But Grandmother remembered those as the best ones of all.
In my earlier years, ministers often spoke of “Keeping Christ in Christmas.” They decried the commercialization of the season. Simple family memories like my grandmother’s, reading Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and candlelight services in the Church were urged as the best way to capture the meaning of the holiday. It was what you gave to others, not what you received yourself that made Jesus’ birth real and meaningful in present-day life.
Then, under the influence of the claims of our multi-cultural society, stores began to de-emphasize the religious aspect of the season. Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Silver Bells, and Santa with his sleigh took precedence over nativity scenes. “Jingle Bells” but not “O Holy Night” were played on the radio and in stores. Some said this was a “War on Christmas.”
In a way I thought it put the emphasis where it ought to be, for I think it is the church’s responsibility to uphold the religious aspect of the season. I have never felt that either the government or the commercial sector needed to do the church’s work in this regard. Let the mall sell our presents and let the church tell the story of our Savior’s birth!
But others felt that something spiritual was lost because the Wal-Mart greeters were saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” I wish my Jewish friends a Happy Hanukkah, and they wish me a Merry Christmas.
I have never understood those Christians who feel their freedom is being encroached because good manners say that they should not tell those who practice the Hebrew faith to “have a blessed Christmas.” Forcing our piety on others seldom wins converts.
For me the services of the church in Christmas provide a nice respite from the noise of the outside world, and have been somewhat protective of the particularly religious nature of the words and music heard there at this time of year. I like simplicity in the festivities, and the emphasis on family, friends, cozy firesides, and the enduring verities of faith.
How then do I view the revival of Christmas carols at the mall? My Puritan ancestors would have found it intrusive.
But I am glad for the good cheer. It reminds me of the deepest things that truly matter. But I think the best way to “Recapture Christmas” is for Christian folk to find some time to be still and remember, to read the stories of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament, to listen to a choir sing the carols, to get in contact with people we have not heard from in awhile, to go to church on Christmas Eve, and to do something for those who are left out or lonely at this time of year.
Do these things and you’ll not feel left out, and it means a whole lot more than whatever Muzak is selected to be played in the mall.
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