Rage Against The (War on Christmas) Machine

This week, as I have been catching up on back episodes of The Daily Show, John Stewart has reminded me (once again) of why I love him. Yes, he’s funny. Yes,  he’s one of the best interviewers in all of television. But I tune into The Daily Show more for the tragedy than the comedy: the tragedy that there aren’t more people in the media challenging the vacuous politics of our day as directly and deftly as Stewart  does.  Granted, The Daily Show can devolve into frat-boyish humor (you really shouldn’t’ve referred to the President of the United States as “dude,” dude); but no matter how far into the gutter the show might veer now and again, Stewart always manages to correct its course and get back to the kind of genuine satire that helps keep our national political discourse honest. Case and point: The Gretch Who Saved the War on Christmas.

I (naively) thought we had seen the last of the “War on Christmas,” the seasonal molehill made mountain by the lofty egos of Jerry Falwell and other religious right-wing demagogues.  I still cringe to remember the “Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign” and Dr. Falwell’s exceptionally obnoxious boast that he had “saved Christmas” circa 2005 all because a few major retailers had agreed, under pressure from him, to instruct their cashiers and advertising agents to say, “Merry Christmas,” rather than “Happy Holidays.”  I suppose I figured the whole business had drowned in its own absurdity.  Not quite.  A handful of culture war zealots and conservative pundits, including Gretchen Carlson and Bill O’Reilly, have kept the embers glowing, and this year a few ardent secularist/atheist organizations have lit up the headlines by sprinkling gasoline on what remained of the fire.  ( See Robert McCartney’s recent Washington Post piece,  Atheists Edge Out Christians in Free-Speech Battle in Loudoun This Year.)

Stewart’s counter-punch was a welcome retort and provided a much-needed laugh. Nevertheless, no matter how subversive “The Gretch Who Saved the War on Christmas” may be, the spectacle is never going to end as long as John Stewart is the only one speaking out.  For those in the trenches of the culture wars, the criticism of a “liberal media” figure like Stewart will only spur them on. Christians are going to have to stand up and remind their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ that this kind of petty fight is not where our energy, time, resources, and focus ought to be–especially at this time of year.

There are many reasons why earnest followers of Jesus ought to oppose the ideological theater of stunts like the “War on Christmas.”  Surely anything that fosters mean-spiritedness and combativeness is out of step with the message the angels brought to the shepherds so long ago. But the central reason is that the underlying premise of the movement is Grinch logic.  By advocating so vehemently for Christmas, Gretchen Carlson and others are admitting, in effect, that it can’t really be Christmas unless advertisements, store clerks, and courthouse lawns across America explicitly declare, “Merry Christmas”; that the substitution of  “Happy Holidays” can cause Christmas to “suffer” or might even stop Christmas from coming.  If so, then Christmas isn’t the great paradigm-shifting, life-changing miracle the Church proclaims it to be.  It’s a sentimental keepsake that has to be kept high on the mantle lest anyone handle it too roughly.  Saudi Arabian cashiers aren’t wishing their Christian patrons a Merry Christmas as they shop this December.  There are no nativity scenes outside government buildings in Myanmar. Downtown Kampala isn’t glistening with white lights or silver bells.  Is it not Christmas there on December 25?  For that matter, was it really Christmas in Bethlehem?  Scripture doesn’t mention any holiday trappings  at either the inn or the stable.

The reality is that all the fuss over “Merry Christmas” has more to do with Andy Griffith than the Baby Jesus. It’s about clinging to a by-gone era rather than proclaiming the Good News. “Happy Holidays” is nothing more or less than an attempt to be more respectful and inclusive (not to mention accurate!) in the context of our hallowed American melting pot, since  no fewer than seven different holidays are observed somewhere in America between December 1st and January 1st.  The term is not meant to be offensive to anyone, least of all the followers of Jesus.

We Christians are supposed to be the ones who believe that all the ribbons, tags, packages, boxes, and bags aren’t the real reason for the season. Let retailers and yard displays say whatever they like.  However we are greeted, our mission is to respond with love, grace, generosity, and genuine merriment.  For that is how we bear witness to the truly wondrous event  that transpired in a lonely cattle shed somewhere in the City of David; that is how we lend our voices to the remarkable chorus of redemption that heaven and nature sang together that night when the most  substantive event in the history of the world  took place. Otherwise, we’re no different than any other stressed-out, consumer-driven person rushing around the malls of America this Christmas contributing more noise to an already shallow and cacophonous age.

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