Well, Halloween is over and gone. And I don’t know about you, but winter moved into my area last week with a dump of to-me-unwelcome snow. So ‘tis the season for Christmas-celebrants to argue about whether it’s too early to set up the tree and/or pull out the Christmas music. And to act put upon about saying “Happy Holidays.” That’s right, friends, Halloween is over. And that means the War on Christmas season may have unfortunately already begun without our notice.
In this blog post I plan to analyze the unhealthy aspects of “War on Christmas” rhetoric and its more insidious if milder cousin “Reason for the Season” rhetoric, especially the zero-sum view of the world it promotes and the way it promotes us/them Viking/victim thinking that has laid the groundwork for acceptance of other unhealthy messages by unscrupulous religio-political leaders.
Disclaimer: I’ll be doing this analysis as someone who grew up with the milder forms and can now see their insidiousness and how they’ve laid the groundwork for complicity in hurting others in ways that betray the message of the Christmas story. Not doing this as someone seeking to shame the white Evangelical/moderate church peops I grew up with, but trying to call us to better enactments of the Christmas message. (We’ll get to that, I promise. Hang in there for this longish analysis.)
Why War on Christmas Rhetoric Matters
By framing a space that ought to be built for inclusion and collaboration—the holiday season is, after all, purportedly about peace and joy and love—as a defensive battleground, this rhetoric reinforces and extends the unhealthy white-Evangelical-centrism I’ve already talked about in a previous week.
Worse, as we’ll get to, unscrupulous leaders have exploited both subtle and extreme forms of this rhetoric to get White Evangelicals to buy into and ignore some horrific policies, up to and including human rights abuses. I’ll get more deeply into that toward the end of this article, so stay tuned.
Why the Seemingly Milder “Reason for the Season” Rhetoric Is a Problem
But before I dive too deeply into the analysis and the fascistic angle, let me first tell you a bit more about the “Reason for the Season” rhetoric I grew up with and how I only gradually started to realize how unhealthy some of it was. As I’ve explained before, I grew up as a pastor’s kid in Midwest Christian white-people Nice in a moderate church on the Evangelical side of the Evangelical/Mainline conservative/progressive Christian church divide.
What I have not talked about was how Christmas was framed in the communities I grew up in. This is key, as I remember that long before there was a prominent rhetoric about the War on Christmas, the groundwork was laid in the rhetoric about “the Santa religion” as an opponent to “the true meaning of Christmas.”
Santa vs. Jesus: The Cage Match
Interestingly–considering what many believe to be St. Nicholas’ Christian origins–Santa was seen by many influential voices in my community of upbringing not to be a representative of love and care and concern, but as an emblem of consumerism and greed. Specifically, Santa was framed as an idol in competition with attention that was to be put on the true “reason for the season,” Jesus.
We Still Separated Ourselves from “Those Overly Literal” Christians, Mind You
Now, mind you, we weren’t one of those extremely literal-minded denominations that tried to do the mental gymnastics it took to presume that Jesus was actually born on December 25—we knew that was an arbitrary date set for the celebration. We also knew that date had likely been originally set for a pagan holiday, and depending on who you talked to, there was wry head-shaking or suppressed triumph at that.
No, we weren’t like those other Christians, the ones that saw no nuance. Right? (Sigh—we still had a dualistic cage match going on—we just framed it in prettier ways.)
What Got Silenced by the Framing of the “Debate”
Overall, what fascinates me in retrospect was what wasn’t mentioned in any of our rhetoric and concern over protecting our holiday from “contamination”—specifically, all of the other religious holidays and seasons that overlapped with Christmas.
Our community was only really fighting for competition, you see, with other people who were celebrating the same holiday in different ways. It wasn’t a question of other religious holidays getting airtime at all—the competition for attention was ONLY about how Christmas itself was celebrated.
Projecting Our Anxieties About Whether We Were Holy Enough Outward
And Lord knows, we were already defensive enough about that. Because everyone in my community “knew” that the most important holiday of the year (we didn’t know Eastern Orthodox people, so we had no idea that the tradition of the Eastern Christian church was that Easter, or Pascha, was the most important holiday of the church year) was being diluted.
People—many of whom didn’t even go to church! Or at least not regularly enough!—were celebrating this holiday without attending to what we saw as the most important and meaningful/sacred aspects of the holiday.
There was much head shaking over this. And wayyy too little introspection about how much our complaints about others betrayed our own lack of attention to our own holiday.
In short, in complaining about others’ lack of focus on this season, we Christians became like people with ADD complaining that others aren’t paying enough attention to the stuff we were saying we all needed to be focusing on.
Looking back, I can very much see how not a great look that was for us.
In Which We Fail to Incarnate the Spirit of Christmas and Such
At any rate, with even this quiet “Christian Nice” rhetoric about Christmas, we got pretty snarky about Christmas. In fact, we got pretty paradoxically competitive about claiming attention for a holiday that was supposed to be about humble incarnation.
Sure, we said we just wanted everyone to “share in the good news,” but we never really explained to ourselves why it was important that Christmas carols be more important than other holiday songs piped through malls, much less why only Christmas of any type be the only focus of all holiday displays.
“Reason for the Season,” the “War on Christmas,” and Zero-Sum Thinking
As you can see, this situation was fallow land for the “War on Christmas” rhetoric to take hold. That is to say that we already had a bit of a zero-sum view of the holiday season.
If you haven’t heard that term in awhile, zero-sum views of the world see the world like pieces of pie—the narrative goes that if you lose out on getting a piece, you have a situation of scarcity. In other words, one person wins—is the Viking—and another person loses. That person often is framed as the victim.
Why Zero-Sum Thinking Rarely Tells the Whole Truth, So Help Us God
The truth, of course, is that not everything is pie, including holidays. Conflict management doesn’t always have clear-cut winners or losers, and genuine win-win, or nuanced some win, some loss, solutions are usually possible in the real world.
In fact, there are sum situations where one part of life IS pie–and in those circumstances, cool, we should ask for those without pie to get some pie, if there’s a need for sustenance there.
In some ways, the situation regarding my childhood views on Christmas work within the pie metaphor. The problem was we already had our slice of pie, and were trying to stop others from having other slices of the pie we thought they didn’t deserve.
But in reality, the question of whether we should say “Happy Holidays” isn’t really pie. But let me explain, in case you never looked at it quite this way, how it looks from within this perspective.
The Zero-Sum Take on “Happy Holidays”
One would think, from an outside perspective, that the Happy Holidays language would be a win-win solution for this group. After all, the root of the word “holiday” is “holy day,” which actually focuses on the sacred aspects that those in my childhood communities were so concerned to protect.
The protectionist instinct I’ve already outlined should help you understand why this wouldn’t be taken at face value, however. The concern, of course, is about the purity of the original meaning of the word diluting into a more general meaning of the term, especially paired with the word “happy,” which was often seen to be less meaningful than the more “holy” words for the season like “joy.”
The War on Christmas and the Anxiety of Influence
So yeah, I can totally see how the “War on Christmas” thing got its footing in the “reason for the season” rhetoric of my youth. See, implicitly there from the beginning in the latter phrase is the idea that you’re only celebrating one holiday that should claim the entire attention not just for one group who wants to pay attention to it, but for everyone.
And while I totally think that attempts to persuade and influence others toward one’s view aren’t inherently a problem, it’s pretty easy to see, if for example you are a staunchly ensconced in a different religious perspective or tradition that has legitimate holidays during the same time period, where this attitude would come off as tone-deaf at best and intensely rude at worst.
A Call to Transform the Focus of “Reason for the Season” Rhetoric
Honestly, if any of us Christians have a problem with the words “Happy Holidays” to the extent that we feel the need to worry about losing their meaning, then perhaps we need to check ourselves about whether we’re really celebrating a holiday which is about celebrating humility, peace and joy.
See, if we have that much desire to impose our understanding of what “the season” is and what that should mean, are we really showing the world humility?
And if we have that much anxiety and defensiveness about letting other people have their own beliefs that don’t intrude on ours, are we really extending peace on earth to all?
And if we are more concerned about splicing whether the word happy is as good as the word joy for others, how likely are we to actually be practicing and incarnating joy for others?
The Underlying Hostility of the Initial Focus That Made Way for Fascist Manipulation
Interestingly for having grown up in “Christian Nice,” I actually find this particular attitude an incredibly hostile one toward others who are different. If we’re to talk about the characters it’s like in the Christmas story, it’s honestly more like the innkeeper or even Herod than it is like any of the more “faithful” characters in the narrative.
Sigh. No wonder manipulative leaders have used this initial grounds of fear of others to argue that suspicious brown children at the US borders are intruders rather than those who should be welcomed.
A Call to Old-Fashioned Repentance (I Guess)
My dear Christian friends, I ask you, what side of the Christmas story do you want to be on? This is a serious question. Those of you who are fighting the “War on Christmas” have a valid point, after all—words do matter, and they have consequences. I just have a different take on how that goes down on this particular issue than you do.
When you hear the words “Happy Holidays,” you cringe because others may not be appropriately honoring the holiday in the way you wish.
But when I hear “War on Christmas” rhetoric these days—and I say this in love, as someone with a firm grounding in the “Reason for the Season” tradition, who has heard the Christmas story a million times and all the sermons on every aspect of it—I worry that you are projecting your worries about holiness outward rather than paying enough attention to the holiness of your holidays yourself.
The Tie Between The War on Christmas and Human Rights Violations
See, those unscrupulous leaders championing this War on Christmas nonsense are literally using it to be Herod toward brown-skinned children. And I’m looking to all of us trained up in this tradition to take that lesson of the Christmas story about being hospitable to young children very very seriously.
Prophetic Voices from Outside the Fold Are Not Trying to Attack Christians
Christian friends who feel attacked by “Happy Holidays” and calls to stand up against human rights violations alike, please hear this if you can:
Those who are drawing attention to the correspondences these days, whether from inside or outside your fold, are not seeking to say you are not enough.
And they’re not trying to take away your observance of the holidays.
Indeed, they are seeking to ask you to pay better attention to your own holiday.
What “Your Enemies” Want from You Is Better Focus on the “True Reason for the Season”
They’re asking you to enact humility by leaving room and voice for others to celebrate their own holidays that take place around Christmas without you being rude about it.
They’re looking to you to seek true peace and justice by standing up against the incredibly Herodian and innkeeper-like policies that are literally hurting brown children and others alike at our southern border.
And they’re looking to encourage you to spread joy by actually taking the trouble to communicate that you are as concerned for the welfare of others as you are about protecting your own holiday.
And not just in the way your brand of Christianity perceives the welfare of others, but in actually humbly and peacefully and joyfully incorporating and working with their ideas of what they may need, and prioritizing those perceptions over and above your own.
What about the Bible Gave You the Impression This Stuff Would Be Easy?
These are not easy disciplines, friends. Sometimes the perceptions of scarcity, of loss, are accurate. Sometimes they do come with losses. Losses of pride. Losses of security. Losses of control.
That’s hard to handle, those things. The loss of them is worth grieving.
But I know this to be true: this loss is worth grieving; not worth pushing on to others. Others who want equality, who want to enact their own forms of joy and peace and humility this holiday season, are not threatening your safety, not really—any more than the brown children at the border are threats to you, or Jesus was to Herod.
And even if you were to lose ground through this exercise, is not the message of the Christmas story that humble beginnings are enough?
A Final Charge
Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to work against unhealthy rhetoric and narratives wherever we find them, especially when they get connected to policies that hurt the vulnerable, marginalized and oppressed. Let’s continue to speak up against this stuff, whether we find it in others or in ourselves, toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
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