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The faux fight for Christmas

Backdrop on the annual year-end culture war

by Ken Sehested

"Every company in America should be on its knees thanking Jesus for being born. Without Christmas, most American businesses would be far less profitable."
—Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly

I have to admit it was a bit embarrassing to watch the social media outrage of “progressive” Christians (and no, I’m not fond of the modifier) stirred up by the apparent indignation of “traditional” Christians that Starbucks would serve its brews in plain red cups, with nothing but their logo—a 16th century Norse woodcut of a twin-tailed mermaid—instead of those more hallowed images of snowflakes, snowpeople and snow-scened carolers.

Given the fact that over 70% of the world’s Christian population live in the Global South—where, for most, December is in the middle of summer—“I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” is a carol for decidedly ivory-shaded people.

For Christ’s sake (and I mean that) we would do better saving our outrage over more seriously righteous stuff.

We forget (or never knew) that in the liturgical traditions’ lectionary memory, the Sunday after Christmas is the “Feast of the Holy Innocents,” the ISIS-like episode of Herod’s desperate attempt to wipe out an imperial threat by the slaughtering baby boys around Bethlehem. Which then prompted the holy family to undertake a Syrian refugee-like flight through the Sinai desert to Egypt.

The current “war on Christmas” mania got its biggest boost in 2005 when Fox News host John Gibson wrote a book by that title, subtitled “How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse than You Thought.” But the pro-Christmas vigilante movement goes back further.

In 1921 the automaker and notorious anti-Semite Henry Ford blamed the Jews for squelching Christmas. By the time the Cold War came around, it was the nefarious Communists who were out “to drive Christ out of Christmas.”

Likely the current phase of hysteria should be credited to a former magazine editor named Peter Brimelow, a rabid anti-immigrant crusader, who founded the “VDare” website which railed against the displacement of “Merry Christmas” by “Happy Holidays” as a December social etiquette. (Brimelow’s organization has been classified as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.)

Ironically, Matthew’s account (ch. 2) of Herod’s bloodletting contains an understated critique of orthodox arrogance by elevating the pagan Magi to hero status in the tale of baby Jesus’ escape. And Luke’s account credits that culture’s backwater day laborers—the shepherds—as being the first to hear and respond to the news. These are but two among a host of examples of Scripture’s persistent theme of God’s reversal of existing arrangements and presumed privilege.

The paradox of the saving-Christmas movement is greatest, though, when you consider our nation’s Puritan ancestors’ attitude toward the occasion. Instead of putting Christ back into Christmas, they wanted to remove him entirely, going so far as to outlawing seasonal cheer both in the Puritan-controlled British parliament (1643) and later in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Between 1659 and 1681 any Massachusetts colonist found making merry on Christmas was fined five shillings.

A 1580 essay by English Puritan Philip Stubbes complained “that more mischief is that time committed than in all the year beside, what masking and mumming, whereby robbery whoredom, murder.  . . what banqueting and feasting . . . to the great dishonor of God and the impoverishing of the realm?” In 1706, a Puritan mob smashed the windows of King's Chapel in Boston to disrupt an Anglicans Christmas service. It wasn’t until the 1870s that New England abandoned its scroogyness and embraced year-end revelry. It took nearly another century before Christmas became a holiday in Scotland in 1958.

Benjamin Franklin penned what was likely the best general assessment of the holiday, both in Britain and in the Colonies, recorded in the 1739 edition of Poor Richard’s Alamanac: “O blessed Season! Lov’d by Saints and Sinners / For long Devotions, or for longer Dinners.”

The New Testament’s and early church’s general disinterest in dating the birth of Jesus was key to the Puritan bah-humbuggery. The earliest recorded speculation about a precise nativity date is in the late second century CE, when Clement of Alexandria surveys several then-current theories, all of which proposed spring season days. It’s just not a thing, at least not until the fourth century when the church was enthroned as the Roman imperium’s queen and pressure to control content became an ecclesial preoccupation.

The desire to control content, define the boundaries and name apostates has always been the fly in every faith-based ointment when powerful enough to work its will.

What is far more corrosive to Communities of the Way is the substitution of cheery sentiment and commercial advantage for Advent’s precarious scenario.

In a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court case (Lynch v. Donnelly), regarding the constitutionality of a Pawtucket, R.I., courthouse crèche (Santa was among the visitants), former Chief Justice Warren Burger established legal precedent for existing polity, saying the Christmas display “engenders a friendly community spirit” and “serves the commercial interests” of the merchants.

Then there is this newer-age faith-based tendency, just announced in my newspaper’s review of holiday offerings: “Bringing Happy Back Into Your Holidays: An Evening of Befriending the Mind and Discovering the Sacred in the Holiday season.” With which we can discard minor-keyed carols’ reminders of shameful unplanned pregnancies, with migrants consigned to beastly stables, Herod’s fury a distant memory, and a child to whom is subversively given the very titles—“savior,” “son of God,” “redeemer of the world”—then reserved for none other than the great Roman Caesar. No more discordant words from Mary about the rich being sent away empty.

And the hungry being filled? We’ve got charities for that—the poor get their share of column inches and broadcast minutes in the annual “season for giving” disguise of impoverishing policies, assuring a steady stream of docile recipients for next year’s benevolent binge. Time now for marshmallowy hot cocoa and Rudolph’s red nose. Ah, the aroma of chestnuts roasting! And happy 100th birthday anniversary, Frank Sinatra!

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Information for this article is drawn from a variety of sources, including:

•“A Brief History of the War on Christmas,” by Alex Altman, Time magazine

•“Outlaw Christmas—It Wouldn’t Be the First Time,” by Pam Durso, ethicsdaily.com

•“Gold, frankincense and espresso,” by Bill Leonard, Baptist New Global

•“Starbucks red cups and the outrage machine,” by Laura Turner, Religion News Service

•“The Inanity of the Starbucks Christmas Cup ‘Controversy,’” by Emma Green, The Atlantic

•“Christmas dissolved: English Puritanism,” by Douglas D. Anderson

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org