GIVEN that we always mark Christmas merrily with family (my wife’s family and my own), I confess to stupefaction over the culture wars and arguments that people now engage in during the Christmas period.
Since I prefer journalism to zealotry, I do not dismiss the quarrel as just daft. I sought out this year the most intriguing and interesting developments during the holiday season for lessons on the way our lives are changing.
Free Christmas from worldliness — Pope Francis
Let me begin with the message of the Holy Pontiff.
This year, Pope Francis continued his campaign against the commercialization of the Christian feast of the Nativity. He called on Christians to liberate Christmas, saying it has been taken “hostage” by worldliness.
It’s striking that Francis communicated his message a la Trump—through a tweet. He tweeted: @Pontifex
Let us free Christmas from the worldliness that has taken it hostage! The true spirit of Christmas is the beauty of being loved by God.
This week, Francis told a group of schoolchildren that if Jesus Christ were removed from the holidays, Christmas would be emptied of all significance.
Addressing a group of youngsters who came to the Vatican for the blessing of the figures of Jesus for their Nativity scenes, the pope told them that only a Christ-centered celebration would be the “real Christmas.”
The pope thanked the children for their “joyful presence” in Saint Peter’s Square, then invited them to pray at home in front of the manger scene with their families, allowing themselves to be attracted “by the tenderness of Jesus child, born poor and fragile among us, to give us his love.”
“This is the real Christmas,” Francis said. “If we take away Jesus, what is left of Christmas? An empty feast.”
The pope is not alone in thinking that Christmas has become too commercialized.
Last month, an Irish priest made news by proposing that Christians should abandon the word “Christmas” since it has become so completely secularized.
Although he proposed no alternative, Father Desmond O’Donnell said that Christians should replace the word
“Christmas” with something more meaningful, saying that Christmas has been hijacked by “Santa and reindeer.”
“We’ve lost Christmas, just like we lost Easter, and should abandon the word completely,” Father O’Donnell said. “We need to let it go; it’s already been hijacked and we just need to recognize and accept that.”
He is fortunately a minority. Pew Research Center revealed that nine-in-10 Americans intended to celebrate the holiday; about half said they planned to attend church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
Pew found that more than half of Americans still believed in the essential elements of the Nativity story surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, with a full 66 percent of US adults affirming that Jesus was miraculously born of a virgin.
Culture war in America
In America, Christmas time is always wartime. The Christmas culture wars are acted out with gusto by all participants, with little risk of anyone really getting hurt, or of anything really changing.
This year, President Donald Trump is a passionate combatant. He declared that he told his wife not to patronize stores which wished customers a politically correct “Happy Holidays” instead of celebrating the Christian festival.
Reintroducing the allegedly “banned” expression “Merry Christmas” was one of Mr. Trump’s electoral promises, and through the year he has been warming people up for a Yuletide just like they used to know.
At a rally in Florida on December 8th, he gave the Nativity a new twist by linking the Savior’s birth to a very topical issue:
“Let me begin by wishing each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas… I can think of no better Christmas present for the American people than giving you a massive tax cut.”
This provoked a reply from Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live. He donned a Trump hair-piece and declared:
“The war on Christmas is over…It will soon be replaced by the war with North Korea.”
This year, the White House dispatched a greeting card that included the words “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”
Before Trump, the winter message sent by the White House featured a more generic wish for “Happy Holidays.”
Americans quarrel over everything. Some are upset when the Christmas message is inclusive, trying to include everyone. Others get livid when the message is exclusively beamed to Christians, like calling the day “Christmas” again.
Yet, for all their quarrels and secessions, Pew Research reports that some 32 percent of Americans would rather have stores, businesses, and have the White House wish them a “Merry Christmas,” while 52 percent have no preference between those words and “Happy Holidays.”
Christians and Jews Connect this season
I found most warming a message from columnist Suzanne Fields, published on December 22. She noted that this is a time when Christians and Jews connect with one another.
“‘Tis the season to be merry, and we need a little merriment this season. This year, the passage of time between two holidays of the spirit, Hanukkah and Christmas, is short, focusing attention once more on the Judeo-Christian moorings of America. Every year we honor the ways Christians and Jews appeal to what they hold in common in exhortations. But like so much else in our high-tech, 24/7 media world, differences are magnified and politicized.
Political overtones have always influenced how we celebrate our holidays, but not until now has so much attention been paid.
President Donald Trump is alternately admonished and applauded for emphasizing the word “Christmas” in the celebrations, as many Christians think the origin of the holiday is deliberately lost in the generalized wishes of “happy holidays.”
Despite the occasional hyperbole and sometimes hyperventilation, there’s an imperfect but growing togetherness between Jews and Christians. They are much closer than in terrible times past, as on the eve of World War II, when Jews fleeing Adolf Hitler faced rationed admission to the United States….
The uneasy relationship between Christians and Jews in this country has been more cultural than religious, though it finds connection in both worlds. In other countries and other times, Jews often hid or converted. In America, many Jews preferred to choose either assimilation or imitation. Hanukkah had never been a major Jewish holiday but was promoted to major status because it shares the season with Christmas. In the 1920s, when Jewish immigration was curtailed, Jews expanded Hanukkah celebrations to lighten family spirits in the dark winter nights….
A good-neighbor policy has thrived in popular culture, with songs like “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” and the hymn-like “God Bless America,” all of which were composed by a Russian Jewish immigrant named Irving Berlin, thus cementing the connection that is even stronger today. Berlin’s life has been described as “the Horatio Alger story told in Yiddish,” and the composer, who lived to be 101, has been cited as “capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives.”
Beyond a clash of civilizations
My wife tells me that a Muslim friend wished her “a merry Christmas.” Then, the friend wondered, “Why am I doing this? I am a Muslim.”
He should not wonder too much. We, Filipinos, now officially mark as a holiday Eid al-Fitr, the religious holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting.
It’s easier on the mind to think of this kindred feeling than to harp on a “ clash of civilizations.”