When Christmas Wasn’t at War

By November 29, 2013Theology & Culture

Christmas is under attack.

Christians are being persecuted.

Because someone said “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”

Along with hanging the stockings, trimming the tree, and playing Christmas music, there seems to be a new holiday tradition. As soon as Thanksgiving is within sight, all kinds of internet memes begin to circulate with the claim that Christmas is at war. The declaration of war centers around the use of the greeting “Happy Holidays” rather than the more specific “Merry Christmas,” and it is said to be just one more way Christ is being removed from Christmas. Christmas is under attack and Christians are being persecuted, so the reasoning goes. And while I understand that the underlying hope for many who are offended by “Happy Holidays” is that the integrity of Christmas be preserved, the hostility, war imagery, and threats of boycotting do not sit well with me. Not only does saying that Christians in the United States are being persecuted make light of actual persecution in other parts of the world where Christians are tortured and executed for their faith, it also imposes violent rhetoric on the holiday where we remember God’s willingness to come as a child to bring peace to the world. On the day we celebrate that God found room for a miracle when the world said every room was full, we tell everyone around us that there is no room for them unless they believe exactly the way we do.

As we remember the angels sharing the good tidings of great joy for all people, we are finding picket lines to march and battles to fight.

As we remember the shining light of hope as the star shone the way to the manger, we proclaim the hopelessness of a world that has people in it who believe differently than we do.

As we sing “sleep in heavenly peace,” we are arming ourselves against any store that wishes their customers a “Happy Holidays.”

To me, the irony is startling that as we sing of the Savior coming in lowly form, we stand up tall and tell the world to do things our way.

Before I say anything more, I want to clear up a few things that I hear people say frequently about this so-called “War on Christmas.” First, the word “holiday” is a combination of two words: holy and day.  A holiday is a day that is holy, important, set apart. It’s a day that is set aside for a purpose other than business as usual. And, even for Christians, there are more holidays being celebrated than just Christmas. Every Sunday in Advent (the four Sundays leading up to Christmas) is a celebration. Christmas is a holiday that begins the twelve days of Christmas, each of which is special. New Year’s Day is an important day, albeit not exclusively a religious one, where we give thanks for the year that is ending and dare to dream about the one that is coming. And Epiphany (January 6) is the twelfth day of Christmas, when Christians remember the magi who came to worship and bring gifts to the newborn king.

There are plenty of special days between Thanksgiving and Epiphany to make sense of wishing a Christian “Happy Holidays.” But, beyond that, there are other religions commemorating important days this time of year, too. Jewish people around the world are celebrating Hanukkah (and Thanksgivukkah, since Hanukkah begins on Thanksgiving this year). This eight day celebration remembers a time when God gave in abundance, and kept the oil from running out for eight days. Others are celebrating Kwanzaa from December 26 to January 1. Kwanzaa is a day when African-American people celebrate their African roots, and while Kwanzaa is a newer holiday, it has been estimated that 4.7 million people may be celebrating Kwanzaa this year. I believe that Christians are called to extend hospitality to others, rather than tell the world we have no room for them. We should do this for even one person, and how much more important it is for millions of people!

Second, X-mas is simply shorthand for Christmas. The Greek word for Christ is χριστος. Throughout Christian history, many traditions have taken that first letter (“chi”), which looks very similar to an X, and have used that to stand for the entire name of Christ. Though not everyone who shortens Christmas to X-mas is aware of what that means, it was originally something that was done by Christians as an abbreviation. Calling it “X-mas” does not remove Christ from Christmas.

This Christmas, when many are preparing to draw battle lines, planning to avoid any stores that say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and getting angry when strangers on the street wish them a holiday greeting, I’m asking people to consider lowering their metaphorical weapons instead. Jesus was born into a time of conflict and unrest. His people were not majority leaders. They were subjected to a government that did not endorse or promote their religion. When his mother was suffering the pains of labor, no one would take her in, and they eventually found shelter in a humble stable. In a world that was hardly welcoming, God found a way to become radically near to human beings.

The world wished him harm, but he showed far-reaching hospitality. The only time it makes sense to neglect hospitality is when you are operating on a worldview of limited goods. In this worldview, there isn’t enough room to go around. The only way to have room for yourself is to take room away from  others. And, that’s what is happening with this whole “War on Christmas.” There  is fear that if we show kindness and welcome to others, there will no longer be enough kindness and welcome left for us. We are afraid that if we make space for others, we will have somehow made sure there was no space for ourselves. At a time when there seemed  to be no room for the Savior to be born, God found space. No one needed to be pushed out of the way. No one had  to call dibs on a place at the head of the table (though Jesus did have something to say about that, too). The thing about limited goods is that it isn’t true. It’s a worldview based on fear. When we make space for others, there is still ample space for us.

When the angels were praising God, they said, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace…” (Luke 2:14a, emphasis mine). Peace. Not war. In a time when war would have made sense, God brought peace. When it would have seemed right to everyone else to send in an army to overthrow the government, God chose the way of humility. Rather than staging a coup d’etat, God chose to overthrow the world with love and kindness.

And that’s what Christmas is about.

This Christmas season,  I am choosing to view “Happy Holidays” as a way to show hospitality to people I don’t know, unless they have made it clear they celebrate Christmas. Rather than trying to strong arm people into believing the way that I do, I want to show love and kindness. And, of course, I will say “Merry Christmas” a lot, too, but never as my battle cry.

About April Fiet

April is a pastor, wife, mom, and lover of words. She finds inspiration under the big Nebraska skies, in the garden, in the yarn aisle, and in the kitchen. Learn more about April here, and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.