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Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Under Siege

Ross Douthat joins the chorus in today's New York Times of American Christians who feel that their holiday is under siege.  He complains how hard it is to be a Christian and celebrate Christmas, with every "Happy Holidays" greeting grating at the core of the "true believer." But I believe Mr. Douthat's fears are unfounded, or at least he is mistaken on the attacker that is threatening Christmas and the American Christian.

When we go back to the Biblical narrative, there is absolutely no mention of the "Acts church" that is often held up as our model giving any special significance to the birth of Christ.  Paul mentions the actual birth of Jesus in passing, if at all, in all of his writings.  There is no evidence of the Disciples having any kind of birthday dinner or other celebration, no family get-togethers, no gifts exchanged.  Outside of the two completely independent birth narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the birth of Christ is given little ink in the New Testament.

The earliest recorded feast day set aside for the celebration of the birth of Jesus was in the 4th century.  Even then, the date was not settled, with various scholars and church leaders.  Some had the date in the spring, others at various other times of the year.  By the 5th century, the date settled around the winter solstice, where it remains today.  But even then, Christmas Day was overshadowed by the feast of Epiphany in the early Church.

In early America, Puritans who came to Massachusetts from England actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas, as part of a broader rejection of Roman Catholicism and its high ritual.  Other groups in the colonies, including Moravians in North Carolina and elsewhere, continued their celebrations in the German tradition, including introducing Christmas trees to America.  But after the Revolution, Christmas fell out of favor, being seen as an English custom. Our modern American Christmas is a hodgepodge of various traditions dating back to Roman celebrations of the winter solstice and other pagan holidays.  Very few of these traditions have anything remotely to do with honoring the birth of Jesus the Christ.

The ancient prophet Amos perhaps speaks more directly to us today:

I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
   your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
   I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
   I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
   I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
   righteousness like a never-failing stream!
So we sit piously in our pews, listening to the choir singing Christmas carols.  We spend way too much money on things that our cousins and nieces don't need, and will promptly pitch into the landfill or put in the basement to "regift" next year.  Instead of a time of peace and goodwill, we turn a friendly "Happy Holidays" greeting from a stranger into a perceived attack, perhaps an early sign of paranoia disorder.  Sure, we pitch a few pennies into the kettle, smile politely at the bell-ringer, and Jack Horner-style think to ourselves "what a good boy am I."

Christmas is indeed under siege, but not from the "holiday parade" or the prohibition from putting a creche on the town square.  Rather, Christmas is being attacked by unbridled consumerism, unmitigated greed, and unholy piety.

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