The War on Christmas: A Festivus for the Rest of Us!

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It’s as certain as candy canes, evergreens, and Starbucks gingerbread lattes every year at this time–it’s the annual squawking about “The War on Christmas.” Certain people are getting into an indignant kerfuffle over the fact that some retailers and even regular people might actually say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” To wit, I offer the following from the news:

• Back in 2005, John Gibson, who now hosts a radio show on Fox News, came out with a book  titled The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Holiday is Worse Than You Thought. In this book he talks about how “secularists” have tried to ban the word “Christmas” from stores, schools and government as a means of pushing Christianity back underground. This year, Sarah Palin has joined in with her own book, Good Tidings of Great Joy which offers essentially the same argument. Bill O’Reilly keeps running a segment on his Fox show on how the “War” is going.

•  The American Family Association calls for annual consumer boycotts of stores that advertise “holiday” specials instead of explicitly using the word “Christmas.” This year, it’s Radio Shack who’s getting the Christmas kaibosh (I know what you’re thinking, because it’s the first thought I had…People still shop at Radio Shack?).

• Some tree retailers have gone to selling “holiday trees” rather than Christmas trees. Though, as one California Christmas tree grower says, “I don’t care what they call them as long as they buy them. Call them a weed if you want to.” No word on whether the trees stay greener when called “Christmas” trees vs. “holiday trees.”

The war is being fought everywhere, its battles being pitched in places like the local shopping center, where an innocent checkout clerk offers a customer a cheerful “Happy Holidays” and gets an earful in response. “Why didn’t you wish me a ‘Merry Christmas’?” Jesus is the reason for all this, you know.” This, of course, is followed by the customer indignantly snatching up her gift-laden cart and self-righteously storming out of the store, believing she has engaged the anti-Christmas forces with superior religious firepower — the corporate conspirator being neutralized, or at least left feeling hurt and abused.

Merry Christmas, indeed.

Time for a little peace on earth among those on whom God’s favor might rest if they’d stop carping about it. Perhaps we would do better to consider that the war on Christmas, like many other real wars, is a war based on faulty intelligence.

Take the basic justification and battle cry for this particular war, for example: Jesus is the reason for the season. Hmmm. Let’s think about that a minute. What has the season really become? Is Jesus really the reason for people to engage in an orgy of rampant spending? Is Jesus the reason that many people will experience crushing debt trying to make sure that everyone on their “list” is materially satisfied with the gifts they want? Is Jesus the reason that tempers flare in mall parking lots and store clerks become punching bags for impatient people? Is Jesus the reason we fight over placement of religious symbols? Is Jesus the reason that more people become depressed and lonely at this time of year than any other?

In fact, if you look closely, you’ll see that Christmas, as many people practice it, has become more like Festivus — the holiday made up by Frank Costanza’s character on Seinfeld. During Festivus, the primary symbol is an unadorned metal pole, the central activity is telling the people you love how much they’ve disappointed you in the past year and the after-dinner entertainment involves wrestling to see who can pin the host. Here’s a reminder:

What looks like Festivus to the rest of us is actually Christmas for many!

Is Jesus really the reason for any of the stuff that Christmas has become? Would Jesus embrace all this? Well, we could argue that Jesus would be rolling over in his grave about what the holiday that claims his name has become — that is if Jesus were still in said grave … which he’s not … which is really the whole point.

Instead of fighting to put Christ “back in Christmas,” maybe we should be taking him out of what it has become — allowing him to once again be the Savior of the world rather than the divider of it, disengaging from the metaphors of war and embracing the Prince of Peace.

Better yet, maybe we shouldn’t seek to “put” Jesus anywhere at all and, instead, think about where we should put ourselves in relationship to him.

Paul’s letter to Titus is instructive on this point, laying out the real reason for the season. God’s “kindness and love” were what appeared with the coming of Christ. Salvation does not come through the “righteous things” that people do (or because they use the right terminology), but through God’s mercy and through “rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:4-6NIV). It is God’s grace that justifies us, and that grace enables us to do the good things that are “excellent and profitable to everyone” (3:8).

It’s tough to imagine anyone wanting to engage this message about Christ when some of his followers are so bent on being right rather than renewed. Truth is that you can’t really witness for Christ through clenched teeth or indignant ranting (don’t see much of that in Jesus). We are called to embody the grace of God through the example of Christ regardless of whether the person on the other side of the counter or checkout line is wishing us a “Merry Christmas” or not. Everyone is worthy of God’s grace. Fighting the “war on Christmas” is simply one of the “foolish controversies” that keep us from authentically bearing Christ to the world (3:9).

The whole point of Christmas is that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, came among us: a living example of the way of God’s kingdom — the way of peace, of justice, of concern for the poor and marginalized; the way of servanthood, the way of suffering, the way of salvation.

Read the story and you’ll see that Christ didn’t come to spark wars (either the shooting kind or the cultural kind) but stop them. He didn’t come to throw his name around, he came to serve. Christ didn’t come to give gifts to the good little boys and girls and the coal fires of hell to the naughty ones. He came to live and die and live again as a sign for everyone — especially for the naughty and the needy.

The truth is that, in Jesus, God put himself with his people — all people.

It all comes down to the fact that God, in his infinite wisdom and love, has chosen to be with us; to live in us, to work through us, to love us all. The truth is that Jesus entered the world as a smiling, helpless baby rather than as a mighty warrior, showing us that we don’t have to fight for God’s love. We don’t have to earn it, to possess it, or hoard it for ourselves. We only have to embrace it.

So, go ahead and enjoy Christmas (or the holidays, or whatever you want to call it) — the tree, the gifts, the parties, the food, the family. All are wonderful things.

But if you’re going to focus on putting Jesus somewhere, put him in your heart and in your hands. Do that and you’ll find yourself doing a lot less fighting and a lot more loving. Maybe then the world would look at Christmas, and Christians, a lot differently.

Note: This is a repost and update from a sermon I wrote that also appeared in Homiletics, November-December 2006.

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