Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard the phrase “The War on Christmas” invoked more and more frequently. Often, it comes from the mouths of conservative media commentators, but more often it comes from the keyboards of acquaintances on social media who parrot their favorite Neo-Con commentators. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_controversy)
Frequently, this phrase is used to deride such innocuous abbreviations as “Xmas”, suggesting that this siglum was only coined in recent years as a way to avoid offending anyone who wasn’t Christian, part of a larger movement to secularize Christmas and to remove the religious elements from it. This claim blatantly ignores the fact that this cipher has been used ever since the sixteenth century, drawing from the common Biblical Greek abbreviation for Christ—XT—a siglum which was used by the very scribes that copied the manuscripts of the Bible itself. The term “War on Christmas” is also often used to declaim the phrase “Happy Holidays”, as if that greeting was only coined by post-Clintonian, Politically Correct, hyper-liberals who felt that saying “Merry Christmas” would be offensive to non-Christians, ignoring the fact that this was a very old greeting used by Christians themselves all throughout the 20th century to refer to Christmas and New Year’s, as well as Boxing Day and Advent and the whole of the European centered Christian Winter holiday season. Said phrase was even enshrined in the immortal Bing Crosby song, “Happy Holidays”, a celebration of Christian values and culture.
But even more often, I find the claim of there being a War on Christmas attached to arguments over whether traditional displays and symbols of the Christian holidays should be allowed on public lands or in public schools, and so forth. Often, it is claimed that non-Christian, or better yet, anti-Christian forces have gathered as part of a larger and more insidious war on Christianity and Christendom, and that this War on Christmas is more than just a petty expression of entitlement by those who are protected by democracy and free speech in our God-given Christian country. [Irony alert] Rather, it is—to those claiming this—an all-out war on everything that we as Americans hold dear, the defamation and the attempted dismantling of Christian (read: White, European) values by the more swarthy and less Christian immigrants that have entered our pure land during a moment of compassion and noblesse oblige when we turned away and let “them” into “our” country. In my observations, it seems that more often than not, the complaints about rogue Christmas decorations and the offensiveness of the ubiquitous displays of religious celebration often come from middle-class white liberals (often formerly of Christian extraction), and not the Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu citizens or immigrants whom these complainants are supposedly sticking up for. I have found that, on the contrary, more and more secular Jews are celebrating Christmas themselves (i.e. the “Hannukah bush”, etc.) as part of a larger embracing of, and assimilation into, general American culture. And many of the recent immigrants from non-Judeo-Christian cultures are grateful to be here and are perfectly happy to view and support someone else’s celebratory fervor. Many of these recent immigrants would not want to rock the boat with incendiary comments even if they were offended by the Christmas decorations.
But truly, I tell you that there is, indeed, a war being waged against Christmas, but the War on Christmas cannot be encapsulated or recapitulated by a campaign against a phrase or some plastic mistltoe. And it is more insidious and deleterious than anything that could be waged by a group of disunified, disgruntled liberals. And it has been going on for quite some time, perhaps as far back as the earlier 20th century. This war is waged every year, beginning the day after Thanksgiving. And now, it appears that it has come even earlier this year—on Thanksgiving night itself. The war is being waged by large, moneyed interests, that seek to convert every American (Christian or not) to their religion, that of Mammon, that of worshipping and willingly allowing themselves to be enslaved by the Almighty Dollar. The retailers, the conglomerates, all those who stand to make a buck at the expense of Christmas—they are the aggressors in this war that targets not the celebration of the holiday (for they benefit from that!), but the essence of the holiday itself. Christmas—formerly a holiday that celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, the founder of the Christian faith, and celebrated universal values such as charity and compassion and peace—has become largely devoid of all that in its popular expressions. It has traded this in for rampant capitalistic ideals such as greed and excess. One is expected to spend as much as possible to satisfy the whims and lusts of little children, who hardly understand the meaning of the holiday, so that they will be sated with electronics to make them seem as cool as, or cooler than, their friends. And without fulfilling this obligation, one is seen as an irresponsible and unloving parent. One is expected to spend the remaining family funds on gifts for a spouse who would be insulted and enraged if no such gifts were forthcoming. But an occasional nod to charity is given in the myriad holiday TV specials, after the main character awakens from a dream in which they have become the Scrooge character for 22 minutes, and finally learns the true meaning of Christmas. But those who are “less fortunate than us” are safely out of sight, only given a few spare coins through the Salvation Army Santa in front of various retail stores, merely to quell our consciences as we continue to consume, in order to satiate the beast that has stolen our souls. And we are forced to work harder and longer to pay for this addiction to the approval of the beast.
So where and when is this War on Christmas being waged? For a number of years, Black Friday has referred to a tradition in which the day after Thanksgiving is commonly considered the first official shopping day of the Christmas season. But who instituted this? Is this a religious obligation? Is this commanded by the Lord in the Decalogue, or is it hidden in some little-known, apocryphal, pseudo-Biblical text? No, it was sold to us by the moneyed interests and it was bought—hook, line and sinker—by a public hungry for conspicuous consumption. And so, Christmas became less of a holiday celebration of family and peacemaking and charity, and wholly one of exchanging gifts with those who need them the least. The shopping itself has become our sacrament, our religious obligation, the beginning of our season of Advent. But this year marked the first time that many national retail stores ramped up their efforts against the competition, keeping their stores open on Thanksgiving night, so as to elongate the traditional Black Friday. For a number of years, many have been seen to camp out in front of stores for days on end, even prior to Thanksgiving, just for the chance at a “really amazing deal”. But this year, retail workers were called back to work right after the dinner hour and were expected to work on Thanksgiving night, to satiate the hunger of the dragon. But why even stop for dinner?! Perhaps next year, the stores will even be open during dinner time.
And then we—shoppers and abstainers alike—see images of people we call crazy, fighting with other customers, in the checkout line, at the shelves, quarreling over the last item, taking umbrage at their rudeness. We jeer and criticize when we see it on TV, but then we are complicit on minor levels when we let the “holiday rush” infect our mood and we mistreat those around us in traffic, and in parking lots. We are all susceptible to the poison, the “kool-aid”, as it were. The stores and the consumers are all complicit in this. If there were no customers, the stores would have no need to remain open, or to open a day early. But the consumers have had it drilled into their heads—on TV, on the radio, on the internet—at every turn, that they MUST consume. Every Christmas song has been re-written myriad times to fit the sales pitch of each advertisement. None of these is sacred. The original lyrics are all but forgotten, replaced with the lyrics from the commercial jingles. We have come to associate these songs less with the holiday itself, and more with the activity of enforced consumption. It is unavoidable. Jingle Bells always sells.
The War on Christmas is being waged by the least likely suspects, not by the non-Christians or the liberals, but the self-proclaimed defenders of Western and Christian values themselves—and Christmas is losing. Many of you reading this will feel defensive, as if I were attacking you personally. “I’m just trying to be a good parent,” one might say in their defense. “I’m just trying to give my family a nice holiday.” “I’m not doing anything differently than anyone else.” That is correct. You have fallen under the spell of the Grinch, the Scrooge, the Winter Warlock. But not by saying “humbug” or rejecting the “holiday spirit”. You have succumbed to the Prince of Purchase, the enemy of the holiday who stands enrobed in its very garb, chanting its praises. Before you point fingers at me and go about your business, secretly hating the holiday and its rush and its responsibilities, but publicly extolling its virtues, I ask you to think. Do you not frequently feel tremendous stress during the holidays, as if the gift-giving were an onerous chore? When was the last time you performed a real act of charity? When was the last time you truly enjoyed yourself during the Christmas season? When was the last time you reached out to someone who really needed help and made their Christmas better?
When I was a child, my mother and father would do a tremendous amount of charity leading up to the holidays. It was how they celebrated the holidays. And now that they are gone, I want to share this story with you. We never exchanged gifts among ourselves for Christmas (or Hannukah, for that matter, since my father was raised Jewish). My father, a school teacher, would receive from the school nurse a number of names and addresses of needy families in the school district. My mother would spend a significant amount of time shopping for clothing and food (at discounts of course) to deliver anonymously to these families prior to, and sometimes even on, Christmas Eve. She would never reveal that it was from us; she would always say that Mrs. Flood, the school nurse, had asked us to deliver the gifts on her behalf—thereby protecting their dignity. This would protect the families from embarrassment at having to face their benefactors. And at times, we would stay and talk with the families. The adults would have coffee and conversation. The children and I would play. And I was often struck that these families—known to my parents and me as poor—hardly looked poor. They were not covered in dirt and coal dust. They were not living in ramshackle tin huts, smeared with dung, accompanied by mangy dogs. They looked like me and talked like me. And I came to know that poverty often hides in plain sight. These were families that the school nurse had verified were impoverished, but they hid it well—for their own pride. And my mother, truly the driving force behind our efforts, as my father was a bit shy, would derive great pleasure from delivering these gifts to the families. Being effectively anonymous, she would be granted the knowledge that good had been done and that the world was a little bit happier, but never at the expense of someone else’s dignity. I am sure some of the families suspected that we were the donors, but most of them played it off as if they did not. That preserved everyone’s modesty.
As an adult, in my non-profit work, I try to continue this tradition, even if not in the same manner. My wife and I do not exchange gifts for holidays or birthdays. We are satisfied with each other’s presence in our lives. But we have devoted our lives to charity. Everything we do is somehow associated with charity, even our professions. So I encourage each of you reading this, to challenge yourselves. Without insulting or hurting your loved ones, instead of buying as many gifts, take a larger portion of your holiday gift budget each successive year and donate it to charities. Pick local ones that will have a directly visible effect. Pick ones that serve local schools and needy children. Get involved in such a way that you will be able to see the faces of those you are supporting, but anonymously, so as not to make them feel uncomfortable about the source. And maybe give your donations in the name of a loved one and let them know that you gave something in their name. And get your children involved, too. Have them help you shop for a toy to be given to a needy child. Have them pick one out that they think the little child would like. Make it an object lesson in selflessness for them. Maybe take Christmas Eve with your family and volunteer at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. Or maybe volunteer to deliver for Meals on Wheels, when many such programs close down for the actual holiday itself. Such programs are often in need of willing volunteers for Christmas Day. This, I assure you, will produce a holiday experience you will never forget.
I challenge you to incorporate some of this into your life. This is the only way we will win against those who wage the REAL “War on Christmas”.