Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas: Call It What It Is

In the past few years, a perceptible linguistic shift has occurred in how the U.S. public talks about the cultural/religious season in which we find ourselves this time of year. The other day when I imported a new CD (a freebee that came in the mail) entitled "Merry Christmas 2008" into my music library, the genre designation automatically appeared as "Holiday." A quick cut-and-paste job reunited the ten songs (seven of which were carols about Christ's nativity) with their cousins in the existing "Christmas" category.

The switch from the specific religious term "Christmas" to the all-encompassing "holidays" may be decried by some Christians as yet another attempt to "leave Christ out of Christmas," adding insult to the injury of the slangy-sounding "X-mas" (which, ironically, originated from Greek and Roman abbreviations for the name of Christ).

But the religious and cultural waters of our day have become so muddied that there is no distinguishing between the purely Christian holiday (a.k.a. holy day) and the secular wintertime celebrations we hold dear. In a misguided attempt to do just that, however, Christians have tended to deny the secular aspects of their celebrations, declaring vociferously that "Jesus IS the reason for the season."

But why should we insist on labeling as Christian a celebration that causes "civilized" human beings to literally shoot and trample one another to death in their rush to acquire this year's toys, convinced by the marketing industry that they or someone they love needs them? If Jesus were truly the reason for this kind of season, I would have nothing to do with Christianity.

"The holidays" is a useful term for describing the cluster of secular and religious festivities in December and early January, including Eid al-Adha, Hanukkah, Advent, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year, Epiphany, and doubtless others which with I'm less familiar. "The holidays" is also a more accurate label for the subset often referred to as "Christmas"--a blend of sacred and secular traditions that have developed through the centuries: parties and gift giving, travel and reunions, story telling and sentimentalism, feasting and decorating, music making and church-going.

If only we could slice neatly between our secular and sacred practices. Then we could enjoy baking cookies and crafting evergreen wreaths without wondering what this has to do with the birth of Christ.

In the midst of the ethical confusion, it's refreshing for me to focus on an observance that is unique to the church: Advent (at least I don't recall ever receiving junk mail advertising Advent sales). Quite simply, Advent (the four weeks preceding Christmas Day) is an opportunity to listen to the stories surrounding the entrance of Christ into humanity, and to reflect on their significance for our present lives.

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