Holidays pose questions for all
At last, the Christmas season. Can we at last declare a truce in the Christmas culture war? Celebrating Christmas is something that almost all of us, apparently, do. A recent poll says that 96% of Americans observe the holiday in some form or another.
Christmas has been our nation’s most important holiday for well over a hundred years. But culturally, it’s always been more then a religious holiday. Moreover, just like this year, it has always been fraught with tensions.
From rowdy public festivals that upset Puritan sensibilities, it gradually came to center on home and family. But even then it generated complaints. And certainly over this: “Christmas has become too commercial.” Someone please tell me how much is just enough commercial. Christmas comes earlier and earlier every year, and at least one person is obligated to say this each October.
But as our nation becomes more diverse, we seem to be getting more confused about the holiday. I find this season particularly difficult. Whenever a salesclerk rings up my purchase and says “Merry Christmas.” I size her up. What did she mean by that? If I don’t say it back will she think I’m an atheist? I became equally suspicious of the salesclerk who exclaimed “Happy Holidays.” Did I have to say the same thing back to him?
“Happy Holidays” is a greeting that has served me well for a long time, especially with strangers. I don’t care if they were observant Christians, Wiccans, Jews or Buddhists. I just want to share the good feeling. But now there are people who want to establish Christmas as a Christian holiday. Others protest that this is a tyranny. I feel like Rudolph caught in the headlights.
In fact, it is the very promise of a unified culture that has created the latest tensions over December’s celebration. Beginning with the idea that many of us participate in the seasonal buying spree, a vocal argument runs (although it is more unspoken) that we are participating in Christmas as Christians. Therefore, “Merry Christmas” is the appropriate greeting.
Maybe Christmas means doing something for someone less fortunate, or honoring Jesus’s birth, or singing with a community of believers in church, or taking in a child’s delight, or even savoring a Chinese meal and a movie. The point is we all find “Merry” in our own particular way. It is not a matter of a consensus of speech, and certainly not of belief.
I see our celebration of Christmas uniquely American—it invites free expression. For Christmas to survive, it must continue to hold meaning for us.