07 November 2015

Happy holidays!

’Cause there’s more than just your favorite one.

In the United States it’s the holiday season.

Don’t plug your ears and shout at the top of your lungs in angry denial like that. It is so the holiday season. As soon as Halloween is over, out come the Christmas sales, and people start putting mint in everything. You know what we’re ramping up towards.

Some elf overdid it on the sugar.

I get why the holidays bug people. It’s the commercialism. The merchandising. The obligatory traditions which hold no more meaning for you. The mandatory functions which aren’t any fun, like the Christmas pageants where you gotta watch kids and earnest church members, who have no business singing in public, charitably permitted to nonetheless sing in public. Or the naked, unadulterated greed which sucks the soul out of this time of year.

That’s why I advise Christians to redirect their attention to Advent, the 40 days before Jesus’s nativity, starting next Saturday, 14 November 2015. Catholics shorten it to the 25 days before, just like the candy calendars have it: Starts 1 December, ends on Christmas. Eastern churches start it even earlier, on 1 September, and make a fast of it, like Lent. But Advent’s purpose isn’t to deprive ourselves so that Christmas seems way better by comparison. Nor is it to ramp up the pressure to make ready for a Christmas Day super blowout. Properly, it’s the time to set our eyes on Jesus. He came once before; he’s coming back again.

Merry Xmas!

In the United States it’s the holiday season: Christmas of course. Plus Thanksgiving for the States (Canada had theirs already), Hanukkah for the Jews, New Year’s Day, and Kwanzaa for the very few who celebrate Black Jesus’s birthday. (Kidding. Laugh with me.)

Most of the focus, particularly when it comes to shopping and music and holiday specials, is on Christmas. Stands to reason; most Americans consider ourselves Christian. But not every Christian celebrates Christmas. Till the mid-1800s, Christmas was considered a Catholic holiday, so most Protestants rejected it. Times have changed. Merchants now heavily promote Christmas. Particularly the gift-giving, and the spice-flavored food and drinks, and the minty treats. Some businesses depend on Christmas shopping to put their ledgers in the black.

Inevitably some stores put up a “Happy holidays” sign. Makes sense, ’cause we’re celebrating multiple holidays. But in recent years there’s a new trend, called the “War on Christmas,” where certain Christianists have decided to take great offense at anyone who dares not acknowledge Christmas in the way they want. As far as they’re concerned, the only holiday is Christmas—the only one which matters, anyway. If business are trying to profit off our holiday, how dare they repress the word Christmas?

The word Xmas makes some of ’em Xtra-crazy. I don’t know which boneheaded preacher first came up with the idea “Xmas” takes Christ out of Christmas. But clearly it was someone who knows neither Christian history nor Greek. The title Christ comes from khristós/“anointed [with oil],” as does our word christen. In Greek letters, khristós is spelled Χριστός, and that’s why we see Χρ used in many churches, including many ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, as an abbreviation for Christ. Or just the Χ. It’s not our Latin letter X; it’s the Greek chi.

Xmas is an abbreviation. As such it’s not pronounced “Ex-mas,” but “Christmas,” same as if it’s spelled out. Feel free to correct people who mispronounce it. Feel free to also correct those people who think we took Christ out of it: Christ is still right there, because he’s what the X stands for. And warn your culture-warrior friends, ’cause their ignorance is making them look foolish.

The culture war is about politics, not Christ.

I agree “happy holidays” can come across as pretty foolish too. I remember one Lowes ad a few years back where Gene Hackman warmly proclaimed, “We have all your holiday decorating needs,” yet all the images on TV were for trees, lights, nativity crèches, and other ornaments which clearly won’t be used for any other holiday but Christmas. Go to these stores, and you won’t find a thing for Hanukkah or Saturnalia. Maybe Festivus; I would think Lowes of all places has aluminum poles.

But their stupidity is no excuse for ours. Once again: We’re celebrating multiple holidays. Not just Christmas. It makes far more sense to wish happiness to everyone for whatever holiday they focus on. It’s not about political correctness. It’s kindness. It’s generosity. It’s fruit of the Spirit, remember?

But Christianists are interested in neither common sense nor courtesy. For them, it’s purely about selfishness: Christmas must be done the way they want it done. People are forbidden from speaking of Christmas till midnight Thanksgiving: No Christmas decorations, no Christmas sales, nothing till the fourth Friday of November. Thereafter, people can only wish one another “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy holidays,” and any Christmas carols which don’t mention Jesus are frowned upon.

They want their holiday, their way. Kindness isn’t compatible. Nor are patience, forgiveness, or any of the other fruits of the Spirit. Which just goes to show how little their anal-retentive celebration really has to do with Jesus.

Because the War on Christmas wasn’t created by people who demonstrate the fruit of peace. It was created by conservative pundits. It’s their way of generating ratings for their TV and radio shows—by, as usual, stirring up outrage. It’s by telling the supermajority of Christians in the United States, “You’re an oppressed minority. You need to stand up for your right to celebrate Christmas—and demand your government stop pushing us out of the town square, and boycott those stores which say ‘Happy holidays’ when they damn well know better.”

Demanding merchants and government acknowledge Christmas, has nothing to do with spreading God’s kingdom. It’s about forcing others to recognize our collective might as Christians, as a demographic group. It’s standing up for our rights as a voting bloc. Petitions and boycotts? That’s not how Jesus taught us to behave. That’s how pagans behave.

Christianist pundits insist we Christians oughta make merchants and government respect us, and respect the might of our voting power and wallets. Now, does God’s power come from political clout or money? No. Again, that’s how pagans behave. Mk 10.42-43 Did Jesus promise his followers the world would fear us, or did he warn us to be prepared for persecution because of his name?

As if “Happy holidays” looks anything like real persecution. Go talk to some of the Christians whom ISIS drove out of Syria about how greatly you suffered when a shopclerk wished you “Happy holidays.” I’ll wait.

Real persecution is, “This store doesn’t sell to Christians; get out or I’ll open fire.” And the proper response to real persecution wouldn’t be petitions, boycotts, and threatening their livelihood unless they accommodate us… much less bow and scrape to us, and say “Merry Christmas” like we want. We’re to return evil with love. Since “Happy holidays” isn’t even close to evil, we have no reason to return it with hostility.

Nothing demonstrates the Christlessness of this so well as the uncharitableness, ungraciousness, and unforgiveness demonstrated by angry Christians who demand merchants wish them “Merry Christmas.” Seems we can’t be satisfied by the fact they acknowledge our religion: They have to do it our way. And that’s not grace. That’s legalism.

Jesus may be the reason for the season, but he’s certainly not the reason for any war.

Empty substitutes for Jesus.

The reason so many people have grown to despise Christmas, and seek alternatives to it, is because we permitted secular merchants and wannabe culture warriors to set the tone for the season.

Secular Christmas tries, and fails miserably, to replace spiritual depth with “the magic and wonder of Christmas.” By which they mean surprises—like unexpected or expensive gifts. Things which shock us into euphoria. Or myths about flying sleighs and reindeer, and trying to make little kids believe in them. Or nostalgia for previous Christmases when we used to believe in them. Or gaudy decorations, which distract from our mundane reality.

Well, people recognize this for what it is: A poor substitute. A giant fraud. A humbug, as Ebenezer Scrooge described it in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. He was absolutely right, too. Because in real life, three spirits don’t appear to you overnight and convert you away from your bitter, stingy life with nostalgia and death threats. That story was simply a bigger humbug, one which just happened to work on Scrooge. Still works on people who love melodrama, and fail to notice the emotional appeal doesn’t work on the hard of heart.

For magic isn’t real. Presents don’t satisfy. Dinner doesn’t last. Parties end in unfulfilled expectations, raging hangovers, and embarrassing photos uploaded to Instagram the next day. The family pays no attention to the appeals to nostalgia, nor the talk and songs about peace on earth and goodwill to men. They’re just as dysfunctional as ever. And that’s just depressing.

The grinches and Scrooges try to buck that, and either skip the day altogether, try to ruin everyone else’s fun, or “celebrate” an ironic Christmas where they mock the day and the people who believe in it.

The rest of the world tries to believe in Christmas. Not so much Jesus. They don’t realize he’s what’s missing from the whole scenario—that what they’re truly chasing is spiritual depth. Instead they’re hoping to achieve that “perfect Christmas”—a perfect moment of happiness. Just the right traditions, the right food, a proper tree, the correct amount of snow, familiar decorations, the right people. Put the formula together and the magic of Christmas will kick in. Or it won’t… but next Christmas, why, then they’ll get it right.

But the moment passes. Vanity of vanities; it’s like chasing wind.

Advent the cure.

Advent correctly puts the focus on a man, Christ Jesus. It reminds us there are no perfect moments to achieve every holiday season—but one is coming. Jesus is invading! We don’t know when; could be any time, including during the Advent season. Or after: During the Easter season, summer vacation… all year round. We focus on it at Advent, but we know it all year round. We look forward to it all year round. The joy doesn’t come and go with a date. After all, we don’t yet have one.

So, our Christmas joy doesn’t come from achieving perfection. It comes from the Holy Spirit, for joy’s a fruit of the Spirit. It comes from doing what God meant for us to do. It comes from the Christian lifestyle; not from a combination of “right” things and nostalgia.

Pagans talk about “keeping the spirit of Christmas all year round.” In other words, keep the warm euphoria, the sense of generosity and forgiveness which goes along with it, with you always. Stretch the joy out. But that’s hard to do when the focus is on one day—a day which is gladly forgotten by many folks on 26 December. Whereas we Christians do (or are supposed to) practice generosity and forgiveness year-round. Again, it’s the lifestyle. It’s not a special feeling, uncorked only at Christmas.

Advent is the cure for the sickness of secular Christmas. It’s why I prefer it. It’s why I recommend it: It may be exactly what you’ve missed every year.