A friend recently posted on Facebook a picture of a “Merry Christmas” banner at Cracker Barrel. She wrote, “I don’t shop at stores that don’t say this.”
Fox News reports that Donald Trump announced recently, “We're going to start saying Merry Christmas again.” A new poll from the Washington Post suggests that most Americans (46 percent) don’t care what you say — “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” — though hardcore conservatives continue to be offended if someone says “Happy Holidays” to them.
I will admit that the whole “war against Christmas” thing is mind-boggling to me. Not just because I have Jewish and atheist and Muslim friends. And not just because “Happy Holidays” seems like a perfectly reasonable way to acknowledge that while our whole culture seems to be celebrating this particular seasonal moment, not everyone is celebrating the same thing.
No, it’s because I grew up in a Christian church that was adamantly and theologically opposed to celebrating Christmas as a Christian holiday. The fundamentalist denomination I grew up in, prevalent across the South, believed firmly in Biblical literalism. “Speak where the scripture speaks and be silent where the scripture is silent,” as I regularly heard in Sunday school. And if the Bible never says what day Jesus was born, then clearly God did not intend for us to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.
Or more precisely, we need to celebrate his birthday year round. That’s why, in my church, we always sang “Away in a Manger” sometime in the middle of July, just to make the point that we celebrate the birth of Christ year-round, and not just at the pagan solstice holiday that happens to coincide with longstanding “denominational” Christian practice.
No manger scenes at our churches, no choruses singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” No Advent calendars. No Jesus.
Luckily, we still got presents. And fruitcake.
My denomination also insisted that we were not a denomination; we were the real deal, first century bona fides. And like those first century Christians, we were in the culture but not of the culture — not like all those denominational Christians. (We used the term pejoratively.)
By the time I got to seminary in my late 20s, some folks in the urban congregations were suggesting that, “Hey, if the rest of the culture is paying attention to Jesus at Christmas, maybe we should join in the broader cultural conversation of paying attention to Jesus.” But most folks weren’t too keen on that. That was watering down scripture, becoming part of the sinful culture of denominations and alcohol-drinking and God-knows-what-else.
So having spent all of my childhood and young adult life in an adamantly originalist church that suggested that celebrating Jesus’ birthday in December was wrong because it lacked Biblical justification, I find the whole “war on Christmas” brouhaha odd.
Not only do we live in a culture with people of other cultures and other faiths (or blessed lack thereof), but I grew up in a Christian church that explicitly rejected the very celebration of Christ’s birthday on Christmas as a form of idolatry. That is, I grew up in a culture in which the war on Christmas, so to speak, was about not recognizing Christ in the holiday because you were a better and truer Christian if you refused to do so.
And that makes me think that maybe, just maybe, the best thing to do would be to treat everyone with kindness and respect, and not try to bend the world around us — and berate the people around us — to accept our particular (and sometimes peculiar) religious practices. It’s what we do, not what we say, that surely best represents the spirit of the season.
Ed Madden is a USC professor and Columbia Poet Laureate.