Let’s keep the Christ in Christmas

Lamenting the misuse of our Christmas traditions isn’t anything new.

Since the mid-1960s, children have gathered around televisions sets every December to watch a depressed Charlie Brown voice his dismay about the commercialization of Christmas. To him, it seemed like everyone was focused on buying things and not paying enough attention to the reason for the season – the birth of Jesus Christ.

“Look, Charlie, let’s face it,” a frustrated Lucy told him. “We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.”

Her little brother Linus later rescued his friend from depression by taking the stage and reciting the story of the birth of Jesus as written in the gospel according to Luke. Charlie Brown was uplifted … for the moment, at least.

It’s a great lesson for children to hear, but one that’s becoming harder to find these days because not only is Christmas over-commercialized, its meaning – and even the word itself – is becoming lost in a sea of secularization.

The signs are all around.

My daughters and I went shopping for yard decorations in Huntsville a few weeks ago but we found the supply of faith-inspired items to be virtually nonexistent. We saw countless inflatable snowmen, penguins, pirates, dragons, and even Darth Vader and Yoda wishing us “Happy Holidays.” But we found nothing with the likeness of the Holy Family or even the Star of Bethlehem. Finally, just when we were about to give up and settle for a couple of nutcrackers, we found, nearly hidden away on a bottom shelf, a single candy cane arch with a banner that read “Merry Christmas!” At least it was something.

Down in Birmingham, I just heard that a suburban newspaper’s annual spread dedicated to displaying homemade Christmas cards only had a tiny fraction depicting anything related to Jesus. The kids mostly drew pictures of Santa Claus, elves, and a smattering of the things my daughters and I saw while shopping for decorations.

That may have been surprising 30 years ago. Now it’s just typical. In fact, it’s so pervasive that the University of Tennessee’s chancellor thought it was completely rational to tell the school’s employees that they mustn’t celebrate Christmas on campus. “Holiday parties and celebrations should celebrate and build upon workplace relationships and team morale with no emphasis on religion or culture,” read a memo to faculty and staff earlier this month. “Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise.”

On one hand, it’s sad to see one of my faith’s most sacred moments commandeered and transformed into made-up celebrations of “workplace relationships and team morale.” It then adds nearly satirical insult to injury for public institutions to promote those generic observances while forbidding the utterance of the occasion’s original intent. The repurposing of language and tradition is almost Orwellian.

The reason Americans have traditionally gathered with family and friends during late December has been to celebrate the birth of Christ. Everything associated with the season is rich in Christian symbolism, from exchanging gifts (the Magi) to singing carols (the angels announcing the birth) to even the candy canes (fashioned in the shape of the good shepherd’s crook). To say this is a time to celebrate something else, principally, is false.

Sadly, there’s not really anything that can be done about it. Our public institutions, our schools, and even most of the marketplace have all swallowed the “secular” pill, avoiding acknowledgements of Christmas and forbidding it to be celebrated on their grounds or mentioned in their products.

On the other hand, it’s a free country and people can do whatever they want this time of year. They can gather around their “holiday tree” and celebrate the winter solstice or coming of snow or whatever else they choose. They can borrow our traditions, or ignore them. No harm done.

Meanwhile, my family will continue celebrating Advent and Christmas in accordance with our faith’s and our family’s traditions. Maybe the authenticity of our centuries-old celebrations will arouse curiosity, causing some to seek the source of our joy. And when they do, we’ll welcome them with those two most wonderful words: Merry Christmas!