So there I was eating lunch in front of the TV – a few days after Halloween – trying to come up with worship themes for Advent/Christmas – when what to my wondering ears should appear??? An expression – a campaign – a mindset – that raises my blood pressure to dangerous levels each year at this time. The presentation of the thesis that nearly had me throw what was left of my Subway sandwich at the screen went like this:
“If you check out of a store and the clerk wishes you ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas,’ refuse to pay them until they say, ‘Merry Christmas!’ Don’t let them steal your Christmas!”
Yikes. Really??? Someone can ‘steal’ your Christmas by NOT saying “Merry Christmas” to you? If so, that seems to say volumes more about your superficial understanding of the mystery of the divine incarnation in human history than it does that clerk’s personal piety or the impious state of society as a whole.
The fact that the phrase “Merry Christmas” as a popular/appropriate greeting dates only back to the 1843 publication of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol notwithstanding, the phrase, in the minds of some, has become a litmus test for a genuinely meaningful Christmas. Whether or not the greeting is made by a person who is a Christian seems irrelevant. This campaign seems to operate on the a priori assumption that it is everyone else’s responsibility to greet me in a way that doesn’t either “steal” or somehow “declare war” on my understanding of Christmas.
It’s not that I don’t care that Christians have lost control of their own story at Christmas by allowing it to be overtaken by crass commercialism and over-the-top gift-giving. I do. But, When an economist explains that the size of the Christmas season shopping blitz directly determines the financial health of the retail industry, and, by extension, our whole economy, we Christians have willingly allowed the story to function as an economic insurance policy.
As a follower of Jesus Christ myself, I am saddened that the Body of Christ in the U.S. has, by and large, stood by idly while this has happened. This sadness moves to a combination of fear and anger when parts of the Body of Christ seem to imply that the real meaning of Christmas is whether the cashiers – employees on the lowest rung of the retail industrial ladder – can adequately verbalize the appropriate greeting while the same believer is worshiping at the altar of commercialism.
As one who has studied, taught and preached upon the Biblical Christmas narratives for three decades, I can state with no reservation that the phrase “Merry Christmas” cannot begin to carry the height and depth of that story. These two words cannot begin to carry the theological freight found in the Biblical narrative. When you hear someone say, “Merry Christmas,” are you immediately calling to mind some of these radical elements of the Nativity?
· the Incarnation – the Divine becoming human – was itself an expectation that exilic and post-exilic prophets foretold several centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth;
· the call for a young woman to fully surrender her expectations of how her marriage and life would unfold; and her response of an unconditional YES;
· the use of unlikely persons to whom the message of the Divine Incarnation are entrusted: shepherds are given the task of telling the world of the Nativity at a time/place in history when that entire profession was not allowed to testify in court because they were known to be such unrepentant liars; wise men/star gazers from Gentile lands bring gifts recognizing a kingship Jesus’ own people eventually rejected.
There are more, but I pray you get my point. I further pray that no one “steals YOUR Christmas” or, worse, declares war on it. If, however, you do feel your Christmas was stolen by a misplaced, though well intentioned “Happy Holidays,” may I suggest you no longer carry your Christmas with such nonchalance that it may be picked from your pocket so easily. If your Christmas is under a war-like attack, fear not, this story has survived much worse than this.
Please allow me one more suggestion to those whose Christmas is being victimized. Try getting to a church on Christmas Eve. Sing the old carols. Gather around the table for Communion, if that be your tradition. Watch the Light of the World spread through the darkened room with the candle lighting. See your neighbors faces lit by the Light of Christ. See the wonder in a child’s eyes. Note the tear of a widow experiencing her first Christmas Eve without a spouse. Greet the ill-dressed family that didn’t have the opportunity to be offended by a cashier this Christmas because there are no gifts – and little food – in their home. Watch the young couple struggling to care for their first baby while attempting to be attentive and worshipful…maybe even offer to help. And then, on Christmas Day, take an hour to wander the halls of a care facility, a dementia unit or a pediatric floor in a hospital and find someone who just wants to talk about Christmas. I guarantee any feelings victimhood will evaporate.
May the One born in Bethlehem so long ago, be born again in you this Christmas.