Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas and "Merry Christmas" and Sufjan Stevens, et al

So Boxing Day has come and gone, meaning that Christmas has pretty much packed up and left town. This Christmas seemed to come and go a little more quickly than usual. I barely had time to process my annual thoughts on the Great Christmas Debate.

You know the one. Is Christmas exclusively a Christian holiday? Should Nativity scenes be displayed on public property? And what about saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”—isn’t that more inclusive?

I’ve never felt very sure of where I stood in this dialogue (yell-alogue). I don’t really identify with people who militantly defend the religious nature of Christmas. And yet December 25 has much to do with faith for me—this time of year, I always try to be more spiritual, trying to wring a little, I don’t know, growth or peace or breakthrough as the holiday speeds past.

Early in December, I came across a link to a short video put out by a division of Focus on the Family. In it, a blandly dressed man introduced a tradition he calls “Toss-mas,” the act of throwing out every catalog that presents its holiday gifts under the banner of “Seasons Greetings” at the expense of mentioning Christmas. This person annoyed me.

For one thing, smugness in any religious crusader (or crusader of non-religion, to be fair) is just a turnoff. Besides that, one could make a fairly solid argument that our “Christmas” is really a borrowing of very old winter holidays. If we borrowed it first, we can’t get too mad when someone else borrows it back.

Plus, it seems to me that most of our Christmas traditions are light-years removed from spirituality of any kind. Going to the mall between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the least sacred activity I can even think of. And when I give someone a nice sweater on Christmas, it’s not to say, “I’m giving you this to reflect the incarnation and the loving nature of God.” No, no, it’s to say: “Society tells me that if I don’t spend a certain amount of money on you, it means I don’t love you. So here.”

If stores want to appeal to as many people as possible by using “Happy Holidays” in their advertising, I just do not see how that’s a problem. That Focus on the Family guy was all like, “If you’re going to use our holiday to make money, at least get the name right.” See, if people are using the holiday to get people to spend sick amounts of money, aren’t they doing Christianity a favor by calling it something else? They’re kind of giving you back your word for it, no?

Anyway. I think there are two Christmases. There’s religious Christmas, and there’s community Christmas. Sure, there’s some overlap, but no one is doing me any harm by decorating a reindeer cookie without acknowledging the Baby Jesus.

This year, I went to liturgy late Christmas Eve night. The sanctuary was dim, and the altar glittered all red with poinsettias and candles in blood-colored glass holders. Christmas liturgy is mostly about Mary and the baby; it’s about the incarnation. As we sang, I breathed and said silently, Hey, I need you around here. And I needed to say that.

The next morning, I picked up my brother and drove to my parents’ house. We opened presents and ate a lot of food, and I watched probably three different movies that day. I know the sacred and the mundane shouldn’t be so separate. It’s just that Christmas and Christmas Eve were so markedly different. Two Christmases.

The thing is, though, that some things challenge my Christmas separation. The Charlie Brown Christmas special does. It has all that great music and those quotable, classic lines, and then toward the end, Linus quotes the Christmas story from the Bible and everybody sings “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” It’s great.

Another thing that jumbles my Christmases is the Sufjan Stevens Christmas box set. It has quirky and funny songs that have nothing to do with babies in mangers, and even sometimes pokes fun at the juxtaposition of Christmas symbols. But then he tacks the most beautiful bridge onto “Away in the Manger”:

Be near me

Lord Jesus

I ask thee to stay

Close by me


And love me I pray

And love me I pray

I guess beautiful things and good art can do that—marry disparate realities, and reintroduce you to something great that you maybe missed under all the obvious.

So I suppose I’m nowhere on settling the Christmas debate. I really don’t care whether a person’s holiday greetings are religious in nature or not. (My Christmas card this year had a photo of poodles on the front. I picked it because it was cute and I like dogs.) But as much as I love a good reindeer cookie, I think the "Be near me" part of Christmas is the most subtle--and the most amazing.

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