A Right Christmas?

The shortened word Xmas for Christmas used to upset my mother because she saw the “X” as negating the real reason for Christmas. But the “X” is not a negative. It is the Greek letter Chi, which stands for Christ, so the meaning of Christmas is actually preserved in Xmas.

Today as we go into the Christmas season, we are moving into a time when the holiday is being increasingly turned into something that is religion-neutral. Public displays avoid religious references, students at school concerts have to sing about Santa Claus and reindeer with red noses, and stores play neutered jingles that one might call holiday music—all to avoid the real reason for the holiday. The Post Office sells both “winter holidays” and Madonna and child stamps, the former as usual outselling the latter, and a survey shows that at least one third of us say “Happy Holidays” now, instead of “Merry Christmas.”

It is no surprise then that this is also the time when the right wing media front men rail against the movement away from Christ in Christmas. It is true that many people are concerned about the secularization of the holiday, but those shrill complaints are not really based on true religious concern. Their motives are political. They want to take possession of the holy-day part of Christmas, just as they wrapped themselves in the flag and seized on patriotism after 9/11, trying to make them theirs.

These small-minded reactions are presented as countering the perceived all-pervasive “liberalism” that is supposedly neutralizing Christmas, but even if the intent is genuine rather than calculated (as I suspect it really is), the result can only be divisiveness—us versus them; our version of Christmas is right—or Right; they are the heathens.

Letting narrow-minded bigots make Christmas theirs rather than keeping it ours will be a loss to all of us. We need to keep the religious side of Christmas intact.

Historically, it is very likely that Luke and Matthew (or their sources) made up their versions of the Christmas story, but this does not matter. Over the last two thousand years, the story of a couple traveling a long way with the woman pregnant, giving birth to the Savior of mankind in a stable, angels telling shepherds of the wonderful event, and they and wise men from the East coming to worship the new born infant—this simple story has become enshrined in our culture. It is part of who we are. And it is a very beautiful story, especially one that, together with its evocative songs, engenders the innocence and nostalgia of childhood and of a simpler time.

If we remove that part of Christmas, what are we left with? Santa Claus, elves and reindeer? Is this our substitute for the Christmas story? A story of deception until the child finds out that there is actually no Santa Claus?

I find the “worship” of Santa Claus of the North Pole highly ironic. Santa Claus is a corruption of Saint Nicholas, a religious figure, supposedly a bishop of note. But Saint Nicholas is himself a representation of something else. Missionaries commonly substitute acceptable figures or practices for pagan ones that are unacceptable. So Christmas is a substitution for pagan celebrations of the passage of the winter solstice, and Saint Nicholas is a substitution for Old Nick, the man from the north, and the one we still recognize in the name Nick, the devil himself. (Even more ironical, the word Santa is an acronym for Satan.)

A key aspect with public placement of religious symbols is whether there is proselytizing or not. On the hills of San Juan Bautista, California, there is a large cross, which overlooks the little town. This cross is clearly a Christian symbol, but its location has to do with the historical origin of the town, a Spanish mission founded in 1797. The original location of the cross on the hill not only was a substitution for an Indian meeting site, it also enabled the location of the mission to be identified from afar. The cross here is part of our heritage. Similarly, children in California schools routinely build model missions when they study early California history.

The same distinction should apply to seasonal displays. Permanently posting the Ten Commandments in an official location is different from displaying a Christmas crèche. The commandments are a religious prescription to be followed and so violate the distinction between church and state, but the crèche merely represents a story, albeit fundamental to Christianity. Similarly, the public display of a menorah, while strongly associated with Judaism, is again a representation of a story, not a general prescription for action or religious behavior.

We know what Christmas stands for, even if we pretend otherwise, and while we may still phrase our holiday greetings to accommodate others, we should not get away from what the day really represents in our culture. We should not abandon our heritage, and substitute something that’s plastic, shallow and deceptive. We are able to do precisely that with Thanksgiving. Let us also do the same with Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all!