by Melanie Springer Mock
(with responses by Kendra Weddle and Letha Dawson Scanzoni)
My semester’s work has finally ended. I’ve slogged through piles of finals week projects, grimaced at poorly punctuated essays, used my marginal math skills to calculate grades, submitted my students’ final scores to the registrar.
And during this season, my reward for this misery is its own kind of hell: shopping for Christmas gifts.
Don’t get me wrong: I love thinking about my family and considering gifts that might please them. I just hate the act of wading through crowds in my big winter coat, made hot and sweaty by people, and crass consumerism, and the angst that comes with trying to buy just the right present.
On these shopping excursions, the last thing on my mind is whether a store clerk says “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” or “Have a Nice Day, You Spoiled American Consumer.” So I’m always a little surprised when evangelical Christians get foamy at the mouth about whether their local malls acknowledge the birth of our savior.
You’ve probably heard about the “War on Christmas” campaigns taken up by the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Fox News, and the American Family Association, among others. Certain that Christians are under constant persecution in our country, these folks use the “War on Christmas” as clear evidence that Christians are the most maligned group in America.
So the AFA creates a list of “naughty” and “nice” stores that patrons should shop at, based on whether the corporations use Holiday or Christmas in store promotions and advertising. Naughty stores include The Gap and Old Navy, who fail to even (gasp!) mention Christmas in their fliers selling crap for Christmas. Walmart makes the “nice” list, because despite their abhorrent labor practices and their abysmal treatment of employees, they say “Merry Christmas” while selling cheap goods made in sweat shops.
And as we know, Jesus would surely be less concerned with the poor than with a multi-billion dollar corporation’s acknowledgement of his birth in advertisements intending to sell goods most people don’t need.
Thank goodness, O’Reilly and gang have been warning us nearly every day about the battle being waged to bring down Christmas. We hear about atheists and secularists insisting that nativities not be placed in government buildings; we hear about godless heathens asking that their children not sing religious songs at public school Christmas celebrations. In O’Reilly’s world, our country is overrun with atheists intent on abolishing Christmas altogether, and we are just one cheap city Christmas display away from the holiday’s complete demise.
Although I am a Christian, O’Reilly can count me as an opponent in this supposed war on Christmas. Not only do I find the use of militaristic language about Jesus’ birth problematic, I am wearied by this manufactured battle to make everyone recognize the reason for the season; by the attempt to make corporations, interested only in their bottom line, profess some kind of fidelity to Christ; by the idea that Christians are a persecuted population in our country; and, most significantly, by the belief that more than any other faiths, Christians should be free to display their religious symbols in government buildings.
I’ve written elsewhere about why the rhetoric of a war on Christmas is especially troubling to me as a Mennonite whose faith heritage prizes both simplicity and the separation of church and state. But I also think my identity as a Christian feminist influences my understanding of this hype about a Christmas-y war, as well as providing a way for me to resolve the irritation I often feel at this time of year, when my evangelical brothers’ and sisters’ own anger seems, to me, entirely misguided.
I should say, I think my Christian feminist identity might help me find resolution to my irritation, but I’m not entirely sure how. I’m hoping Kendra and Letha can help me out.
The Epiphany of Christmas—A Response by Kendra
We—my husband, Bryan, and I—had been waiting for Savanaa Bhavan to open. For several months as we drove by a local shopping center near our home, we’d crane our necks looking to see if the restaurant on the corner was, indeed, open. Many of my husband’s work colleagues had told him this is a popular food eatery in India and, despite the Mecca of other Indian restaurants in our neighborhood, his friends seemed especially eager to see the arrival of this one.
And then last week it happened! A bright blinking neon sign signaled its readiness and we responded by dashing out the door early one Friday night to see if the food is as delicious as promised.
Upon entering, Bryan and I were met with the surprised response we are accustomed to receiving when we venture into a local Indian supermarket to purchase ripe mangoes and find ourselves the only Caucasian people in a sea of recent Indian immigrants. Despite our obvious difference, however, our Savanaa Bhavan host quickly greeted us and politely led us to a nearby table where we enjoyed our masala dosas, spicy sambar, and plantains with chickpeas. And, while we were dining, not only the friendly host but also the manager came by our table to ask us about our experience and to see if we found the food to our liking.
A similar sense of hospitality was also recently extended to me when I took a class to visit a nearby Buddhist monastery. The affable monk spent about thirty minutes teaching us how to meditate in the grand meditation hall where a beautiful statue of the Buddha watched this interesting mix of Americans in their inattentiveness and constant rustling including an un-silenced cell-phone that threatened to undo my patience. Afterwards, the monk gave us a wonderful tour of their grounds pointing out the various features still under construction.
In contrast to these intentional acts of welcome and kindness I think about the loud and obnoxious assertions made by some American Christians, too accustomed to enjoying majority status to realize their own privilege.
Like countless others, I dread Christmas. For starters, I hate the shopping blintz even more than Melanie. But, more than that, I’m deeply embarrassed by the constant clamoring to make this a battle of Christianity over every other religious faith.
The paradox, of course, is that Jesus emerged on this earth in the quietest way: no bright lights or omni-present screeching, just the unassuming presence of a couple of parents, a manger, and some shepherds (if you read Luke’s version of the story). Or, Magi from afar who bring gifts to the house, if you prefer Matthew’s rendition. Whatever, I think the Christmas battle of American Christians would ring extraordinarily off-key in Jesus’ infant ears.
And Melanie’s hint that there is a relationship between feminism and finding this supposed war on Christmas to be simply a manufactured reason for feeling threatened by a changing world seems right to me. As Christians and as feminists we live in the hinterland of exile: Christians happily enmeshed with patriarchy see us as anomalies while secular feminists cannot understand how any feminist perspective could align with anything close to Christianity with its attentiveness to a male savior. Our living-on-the-border gives us a unique perspective in which to be more in tune with how outsiders experience marginalization by the majority and because we are working to change a dominant group, we are not afraid of change, rather we are proponents of it, hoping our determination creates not only more justice and peace for others, but also for ourselves.
The ironic good news of Christmas is, of course, that the divine presence permeating life is a witness to astounding reversals as illustrated in Mary’s Magnificat where the proud are scattered, the powerful are brought down from their thrones, the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty (Luke 1:47-55).
The true miracle of Jesus’ birth is an invitation to see the divine in the world, to celebrate the Mystery in all of life. This means, of course, in the hajj of our Muslim friends, in the Diwali of our Hindu friends, and the meditation of our Buddhist friends. And, at least in my experience, Jesus’ call to embrace the stranger is palpably felt each time I greet Babu at what is now our favorite local eatery.
Perhaps American Christians who are undone by the more inclusive greetings of “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings” might do well to make a new year’s resolution of visiting one worship experience of another faith tradition. Being a stranger is the best teacher in learning how to treat a stranger.
And, who knows, if the war-on-Christmas folks actually prayed with their Muslim acquaintances or learned to meditate from their local Buddhists, or celebrated the divine who is so immense there are thousands of incarnations with their Hindu neighbors, perhaps they might be surprised by the epiphany that follows the real reason for the season.
Great expectations at Christmas Time—A response by Letha
A major reason we become stressed out at Christmas is because of the expectations surrounding the holiday. It’s not only the decision-making stress and trying to find time to buy gifts, but brightly colored magazine covers scream out at us while we’re in line at the supermarket checkout counter, telling us we’re expected to decorate our homes inside or outside or both, while also baking and decorating Christmas cookies.
Stacks of Christmas cards wait to be signed and mailed, plans for travel (or holiday visitors) need to be worked out, invitations arrive for events we’re expected to attend, or we’re reminded of our responsibilities as part of a group that needs our participation. Charities urge us to make a year-end contribution to some worthy cause. How do we decide which one(s)?
And on top of all that, the media remind us that financial records need to be assembled because, whether fortunately or unfortunately, Christmas falls at year’s end and taxes are soon due. Decisions about deductions, health insurance, and other important matters have to be made. Then there are the deadlines at our place of work that must be met before the holidays, bringing added pressure.
And there are the expectations for family get-togethers, too. Expectations based on what we’ve heard such get-togethers should be, yet worries about what will be. Aren’t Christmas dinners supposed be like a Norman Rockwell painting? Deep within many people are feelings of nostalgia— longings for imagined Christmases of another time.
A longing for another time
And so it is with the “war on Christmas.” It’s based on the “merry Christmas” image of small town America in the days when much less racial, ethnic, and religious diversity existed and Protestant Christianity was dominant.
In the two-room schoolhouse I attended in the little Pennsylvania town of my childhood (population 300 at the time), the teacher was expected to open each school day with some religious exercise, such as reading the Bible or having us recite the Lord’s Prayer, all this in addition to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. (And this was before the words “under God” were added to the pledge in 1954.) As the season approached, the teacher read Christmas books to us, a chapter each day. All this was done without ever a thought about how such practices might exclude members of other religious groups. There were no such people to exclude!
There were no African American children in the school (or town or even nearby towns). Nor were there any Jewish children, People in our town would have not even dreamed that Hindus or Muslims or Buddhists might be living in America. “Those people” lived in other countries—countries we sent missionaries to so that they could be converted to Christianity.
The conservative Christians who are waging this phony “Christmas war” act as though we are still living in such a place and time. They expect others to conform to the image they hold, and it’s an image much like what I described. To these Christmas warriors, saying “Merry Christmas,” displaying nativity scenes in the public square, singing Christmas music based on Christian theology, and other such demonstrations of their favored religious practices are symbolic of conformity to the particular image of the Christian faith they hold. An image they expect everyone else to conform to as well, even though the world has changed so much.
What’s behind the “war on Christmas”?
If society does not adhere to their personal image of Christmas-as-it-should-be, they are disappointed and angry, and they claim they’re being persecuted and are gradually having their freedom of religion stripped away. They are ready for battle.
But we need to keep two things in mind. First, they are by no means being persecuted. No one is stopping them from saying “Merry Christmas” in personal settings. If their place of business requires them to say “Happy Holidays,” that certainly isn’t “removing Christ from Christmas” (who has the power to do that anyway?) but merely an acknowledgment that businesses serve the public and are being sensitive and inclusive in their awareness that many other religions are also celebrating holidays at this time. And even people with no religion are enjoying holiday festivities, so why not wish everybody the joy of the season?
Nobody is stopping the Christmas-war combatants from displaying nativity scenes in their own yards or on the church lawn. Nobody is stopping them from singing religious Christmas music in their churches. They are hardly being persecuted or losing religious freedom!
Second, those who claim there is a war on Christmas (and a war against Christianity) don’t really believe in freedom of religion— no matter how much they insist they do. They want everyone to conform to their brand of Christianity, an extremist brand that is intricately bound up with right wing politics.
They don’t really want a separation of church and state but rather would favor a national religion, their religion, their form of Christianity, and into it they would fit their way of educating children, running the government, establishing laws that take away rights while claiming to protect freedom, and even claiming ownership of God. To them, their image of God is the true one, the right one, the only one; and all other ideas about God are wrong. They alone know what God wants —whether it has to do with reproduction, sexual orientation, climate change, evolution, women’s roles, gun control, Christmas greetings, or anything else. They think that way because their egos are so bound up with their personal views of God that they’re convinced their own ideas sum up exactly what God wants.
Thus, we hear remarks from men like Mike Huckabee who, after the horrible mass killings in Newtown, Connecticut, last Friday, said, “We ask why there’s violence in our schools, but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage. . . .” (As though we—whoever “we” are—have the power to “systematically remove God” from any place!)
At the same time, Huckabee admitted that God might be there at the scene of the tragedy in Newtown anyway, “through a lot of people with hugs and through therapy” in the aftermath, but added, “Maybe we ought to let him in on the front end and we wouldn’t have to call him to show up when it’s all said and done at the back end.”
Similarly, Brian Fischer, in addressing those who might wonder where God was at the time of the shooting, said, “I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentleman.” (Kendra, Melanie, and I could each say a lot about his image of God in that statement!)
Fischer blamed horrific events like the recent mass murders in various parts of the U.S. on the removal of prayer and scripture-reading from public schools. (This is the same Brian Fischer who spoke out against Mix It Up day in schools, a program which encourages students to meet new people, promoting diversity in friendships by eating lunch together, as we three discussed in our Nov. 2, 2012 FemFaith post, the same Bryan Fischer who said the Medal of Honor is being “feminized” because it has been awarded recently for saving lives rather than for killing enemies. I need say no more about him!)
An obviously shaken James Dobson, too, sounded the same theme of a judging-punishing God on his broadcast about Sandy Hook: “I think we have turned our back on the Scriptures and on God Almighty, and I think he has allowed a judgment to fall upon us. . . . We’re seeing things happen that didn’t happen just a few years ago.” He named abortion and a redefinition of marriage as being behind God’s judgment.
But I want to end on a note of hope. I started out my response to Melanie and Kendra by saying the busy Christmas season is really about expectations. And while I named some that are troubling either because they’re stressful or because they’re attached to a political agenda that distorts the Christian message, many of the expectations associated with this time of year are wonderful (full of wonder), particularly as observed during this Advent season of symbolically waiting for the coming of the Promised One. This anticipation, of course, provides the very reason for celebrating Christmas and gives it its meaning. As the old hymn by Charles Wesley expresses it:
“Come thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in thee.”
Great expectations indeed!
Thank you, Melanie, Kendra, and Letha, for these heartfelt reflections about the state of our nation in relation to Christmas.
I especially appreciate Letha’s historical perspective and her summary of these right-wing voices so I don’t have to follow the links. Kendra, thank you for describing your class’s visit to the Buddhist temple and encouraging us to honor and learn from other people’s connections with God during our Christmas season.
Melanie, I love the wit and verbal play in each of your sentences. Somehow I got through this past Christmas without hearing much about the war on Christmas and without worrying too much about gifts. My kids are grown and just want gift cards to their favorite stores; my husband has to be content with books I know he won’t read. Most other people I know have to be content with a trinket made in a developing country and sold at the Angel Fair at my church in early December–a donation to Kiva.org. I am proud, however, of this year’s gift to my 90-yr-old mother-in-law who has everything: cheeses from the Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes, CA, which did the overnight mailing.
This past Christmas was different for me, however, because I heard a lecture at my church in the past year by Jeff Siker, a professor at Loyola Marymount University in LA, in which he explained that he and others think “the birth narrative,” which appears only in Matthew and Luke, was added later than the first accounts of Jesus life as Christians were understanding that Jesus was God incarnate and needed a suitable birth.
I was shocked and disappointed to hear this theory from a Christian (and Presbyterian too) whose faith I trust, but it did seem plausible. I spent my reflective time this Christmas studying Matthew and Luke and wondering what parts of the birth account are true, if any. I love the angels serenading the shepherds and Mary’s annunciation and her visit to Elizabeth and Anna’s words upon Jesus’s presentation in the temple. I haven’t figured out yet what to believe, but I think some of it could be true and circulated among women (who are so prominent!) and thus added after Mark’s dashing account of Jesus’ life and death, starting with his encounter with John the Baptist. The surprising humility of this birth is another factor in favor of at least parts of it really having happened.
Of course, I knew that the actual season and date of Jesus’ birth is unknown and that December 25 was picked to line up with existing Roman festivals and that observance of the solstice in northern climes was influential in building our idea of what Christmas should be: Yule logs and Christmas trees and lights and mistletoe, etc.
I thought that by keeping a manger scene or two in my home, I was sticking to a more accurate observance of Jesus’ birth. This past December, however, I found myself unwrapping the sheep and camels and manger with questions about whether this “birth narrative” was even true.
One thing I am sure of, nevertheless: the Creator of the universe became incarnate in the person of Jesus, and this revelation of who God is and how much God loves us is very important.
So why not pick a day to celebrate it, however foolishly? Why not dress it up with Christmas trees or manger scenes or whatever we like, as long as we reach out to the God who reached out to us?
I’m with Kendra, however, when she says we need to learn from other faiths in this season. We need to expand our view of God and improve our contact with the Divine Energy behind creation, incarnation, and our Christian scriptures, whether we try meditating with Buddhists or reading about the many forms God may take in Hindu gods.
Another thing I’m sure of: insisting on our 21st-century version of Christmas and criticizing those who simply say “Happy Holidays” makes very little sense when we look back at the ways God’s coming was celebrated in the first few hundred years after Jesus’ birth.