Monday, December 19, 2011

The Holiday You're Referring to is Christmas

Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year. I really do enjoy all aspects of it. I love to buy gifts for my family, I love Christmas parties, I love the decorations, and I love the reflective and celebratory sides of its religious origins. Having such a positive view of it all, it baffles me that Christmas can also stir up such controversy.

Whether you like it or not, you’ve probably heard about the so-called “War on Christmas”. It’s on Fox News, it’s on talk radio, and it even has its own (terrible) website. They lament the efforts of the “elite media” and the “secular left” to destroy Christmas as we know it. Of course this is entirely absurd. Christmas is absolutely everywhere. It’s impossible to go anywhere in this country without seeing Christmas trees, Christmas lights, Santa Clauses, and red and green decorations. It’s on the radio in the form of Christmas music, it’s on TV in the form of Christmas-themed movies and shows. And to kick it off, it’s been around since October. Clearly, if there is a war on Christmas, the aggressors are losing. Badly.

There is, however, one shred of sanity among the absurdity of the War on Christmas. In fact, it’s probably this grain of truth the rest of the insanity is built upon. There is an aversion to actually using the word “Christmas” to describe all of the, well, Christmas that surrounds us. It’s not universal, but it’s prominent enough to be noticed. Now, I don’t believe it grew out of some malicious lefty conspiracy to undermine religion as a whole. Rather, I believe it came out of neurosis. An anxious fear that, God (or Mother Nature or no one) forbid, we might say “Merry Christmas” to the wrong person and (gasp) offend them! Now certainly there are a few who actually oppose Christmas and wish it would go away, but they are a minute portion of the US population.

The Gallup organization reports that while about 80% of Americans consider themselves Christian, a whopping 94% celebrate Christmas. And that’s not really news. It merely puts numbers to something many of us already know. There are plenty of people who put up Christmas trees and decorations and gather with family without so much a thought of the baby Jesus. As many as 80% of non-Christians in America observe Christmas says Gallup. A former boss of mine, a born-and-bread New York City Jew, adored Christmas and even started getting a tree in recent years. Christmas is, for many people, not a religious holiday at all, even to some  who consider themselves to be Christians.

Given these stats, it really surprises me that both sides of this Christmas culture war seem to thrive each year. But at the same time, one seems to feed the other. Those who worry that the 6% that doesn’t celebrate Christmas might feel left out become emboldened in their efforts when faced with billboards reading “Put Christ back into Christmas”. So “Happy Holidays” becomes their requisite greeting. Meanwhile, those on the other side of the battle become threatened that Christmas is being dismantled so they redouble their efforts to assert it as the predominant holiday of the season.

All you have to do to see that both sides of this tiff are delusional is go to your local shopping district. There are decorations absolutely everywhere and, rest assured, you can find Santa somewhere nearby. No one is going to mistake any of this as anything other than Christmas. So those worried about offending ought to take note. This is distinctively Christmas and the vast majority of Americans observe it on some level. It’s OK to use the word. Frankly, it’s silly to put an ad on TV that features all of these obvious symbols of Christmas but to intentionally avoid specifically mentioning Christmas itself. That said, there is value in recognizing the other traditions of the season. This is especially true in more diverse places. Living in New York City, there is a lot of attention paid to Hanukkah and why not? (Maybe you weren’t aware, but New York has a high Jewish population.) But you’re not fooling anyone with your “holiday” ad that features Santa and jingle bell music.

And for those who think Christmas is being obliterated, do you really need any more proof that it isn’t going anywhere than its pervasive presence? If you’re truly concerned about “the true meaning of Christmas”, I suggest spending time making it a more religious experience for yourself rather than expressing exasperation that others aren’t acknowledging it at all. In fact, there is evidence that many Americans may be doing just that. Gallup notes that 51% of American Christmas observers view it as a “strongly religious holiday”. And that number has been rising since the 90s.

Today, the American Christmas is an institution. We buy gifts, we put up admittedly strange decorations that have absolutely nothing to do with the religious aspects of the holiday, we party, we feast, and we sing songs and watch movies that we associate with the season. And there are plenty of us who celebrate and reflect on God's gift of Jesus Christ to the world as well. Honestly, whatever combination of these things you partake in is up to you. Given the myriad of sources that have contributed to what we observe as Christmas in the US today, no one has a corner on the market. Christians may have started the holiday and have the most reverence for it, but when you share something with others you are bound to give up a little bit of your control over it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As a Christian myself, it only warms my heart that Christmas might inspire joy and a spirit of giving in others. And I see nothing wrong with Christmas playing a large role in supporting our economy (so long as we keep the retailers from owning it). Whatever your tradition may be, whatever you impetus for celebrating it, Christmas is big enough for everyone. So why not call it by name?

Merry Christmas!

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