I’ve been traveling through Trump country. The Best Western we stayed in last night must attract a status-conscious clientele. Instead of Fox & Friends during breakfast, Today was playing. They love them some Trump here but they want to look classy.
Everyone says “Merry Christmas.” Not “Happy Holidays.” This is probably due to non-Christians being a rarity in these parts. But it’s probably also due to decades of Fox News and others convincing normal people sinister elements are out to undo Jesus.
To say “Happy Holidays,” they say, is to erase the Messiah.
The solution, they say, is putting the “Christ” back into “Christ”-mas.
But no one is erasing anything. Well, except perhaps for the president, the GOP and their right-wing media allies. They are projecting on to their enemies what they are doing to the common good. You don’t usually hear it put that way. Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Bill O’Reilly before them claim to be champions of religious liberty, warriors against the creeping secularism conspiring to abolish belief in God.
They are not.
They are the opposite of what they seem. No, they don’t have a point. No, nothing they say in this regard is in good faith. Those who oppose “Happy Holidays,” whether they know it or not, are participating in the tribalization of God. That’s not what Jesus intended. That’s not the point of his teachings. The Gospels tell us that God’s love is universal. God’s love isn’t the preserve of the right kind of people eating the right kind of food and praying in the right kind of way. The Kingdom of Heaven is for everyone.
Even the poor and the wretched.
Even people in the habit of saying “Happy Holidays.”
To understand this better, you need only know a little about the history of Christmas in the United States. The Puritans, though small in number, were tremendously influential, politically and culturally, from the time they landed at Plymouth Rock through the Civil War. To them, Christmas was sinful, because Christmas, going back to ancient times, was one big party. People ate and drank to excess. They set off fireworks. They were hardly worshipful. Even after Christianity became the Roman Empire’s state religion, there was no such thing as putting Christ back in Christmas.
Moreover, to the Puritans, Christmas was papist. It was what the Catholics did, and whatever the Catholics did was bad. More specifically, the Roman Catholic Church spent a century and a half assimilating Europe’s native religions of nature worship and magick. This pagan influence was an impurity. Christmas was outlawed in some New England states. It was elsewhere censured to the point of it being just another day.
Most of you know how influential Charles Dickens was. A Christmas Carol transformed Christmas from a week-long around-the-clock bacchanal into a charming family-friendly holiday for kids. Dickens’ influence combined with a rising middle class eager to spend and capitalist system eager to sell. By the end of the 19th century, nail-hard Puritanism had long given way to the Christmas of Santa Claus, gift-giving, feasting and family. It was a holiday we’d recognize (minus the Black Friday door-busters).
But what most of you don’t know is that Dickens was a Unitarian. Along with others of like mind in the 19th century, Dickens had a social and political agenda, which was liberalizing popular democracies here and in Europe. Their greatest American challenge was abolishing slavery. (Unitarians and Transcendentalists were the core foundation of the abolitionist movement.) But even that was part of a larger liberal program of ennobling humanity and their governments through moral instruction.
In A Christmas Carol, Dickens doesn’t once mention Jesus Christ but he nevertheless shows, according to Professor Michael Timko, that it’s possible to experience a spiritual conversion or “personal regeneration that leads one to help others.”
“With Scrooge’s transformative change of heart. Dickens illustrates that his readers, too, can be converted from a harsh, complacent, selfish worldview to one of love, hope, and charity and, like Scrooge, can again become part of the human community. For Dickens, that was the true meaning of Christmas.”
I doubt Charles Dickens would care for American greed and materialism. But I have no doubt he was approve of the fact that, through secular as well as religious means, Christmas has become a special time of year for generosity, open-mindedness, forgiveness and caring. To the 19th-century Unitarians, that was the point of Jesus’s teachings. To people like Dickens, that was putting “Christ” back in “Christ”mas.
There is a “War on Christmas,” but it’s not what you think. There are as many ways to celebrate Christmas as there are humans who observe it. Like God’s love, Christmas is universal. Like the Kingdom of Heaven, it’s for everyone. That kind of inclusivity drives some people crazy. That kind of generosity is reason enough to go to war.