Christmyths

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Rudolph Bultmann, was a German Lutheran theologian and professor of New Testament at the University of Marburg. He was one of the major figures of early twentieth century biblical studies and a prominent voice in  liberal Christianity. Bultmann is known for his belief that the historical analysis of the New Testament is both futile and unnecessary. Bultmann’s approach relied on his concept of demythology, and interpreted the mythological elements in the New Testament based on empirical evidence. Bultmann contended that only faith in the kerygma, or proclamation, of the New Testament was necessary for Christian faith, not any particular facts regarding the historical Jesus.

I was thinking of Bultmann when I wrote this piece.

They say that Jesus is the reason for the season of Christmas. This is undoubtedly true, but despite what Nativity plays and Hollywood epics would have us believe, the story of the birth of Jesus is more complicated than many people think. Between the difficulty in reconciling different versions of the tale and the 2,000 years of popular interpretation and culture layered on top of them, much of what people commonly know about the story of Jesus’ birth is wildly different from what the Gospels have to say. Here, then, are five myths about the Christmas story for your digestion or indigestion, as the case may be.

Myth No. 1

Jesus was born on December 25.

The overwhelming majority of Christians mark the birth of Jesus on December 25. But there is no biblical reason to celebrate Christmas on this particular day.

According to the Gospel of Luke, shepherds were watching their flocks at night at the time Jesus was born. This detail – the only clue in the Gospels about the timing of the birth – suggests that Jesus’ birthday was not in the winter, as shepherds would have been watching their flocks only during the lambing season in the spring. In the colder months, the sheep probably would have been corralled.

As late as the third century, Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus. The earliest discussion of the birthday is found in the third-century writings of Clement of Alexandria, who raises seven potential dates, none of which correspond to December 25. The first record of a celebration of the birth of Jesus on December 25 comes from a fourth-century edition of a Roman almanac known as the Philokalia. Alongside the deaths of martyrs, it notes that on December 25, “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”

Some have argued that the date of Jesus’ birth was selected to supplant pagan festivals that were held at the same time. But while Pope Julius I set the date of Christmas (for Western Christians) in the fourth century, Christians did not deliberately adapt pagan rituals until the seventh century, when Pope Gregory the Great instructed bishops to celebrate saints’ feast days on the days of pagan festivals.

The real reason for the selection of December 25 seems to have been that it is exactly nine months after March 25, the traditional date of the Annunciation – the Christian celebration of the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus, thus marking his Incarnation.

Myth No. 2

Jesus was born in a stable.

As depicted in Nativity crèches and Renaissance paintings, Jesus was born in a simple stable. Generations of pastors and priests have used this notion as evidence that Jesus had a humble birth. As a theological argument, that is true. But this particular detail of the story is not in the Bible.

Luke 2:7 states that Mary gave birth to Jesus and “laid Him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn.” This makes it sound as if they could not get a room at the local Holiday Inn, but the Greek word, kataluma, which is commonly translated as “inn,” does not mean a hotel in any modern sense. Greek has a different word for a hotel, pandocheion, which Luke uses elsewhere in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Clearly, if Luke had wanted to say that Mary and Joseph were turned away from a hotel, he had the vocabulary to do so.

The more likely interpretation, as New Testament scholar Stephen C. Carlson has argued, is that Joseph and Mary intended to stay with his relatives in Bethlehem and that there was not enough room in the guest quarters – typically located in the upper level of a house – to accommodate an imminent birth. So, Mary had to give birth elsewhere, most likely in the main room of the house, on the lower floor. There is no mention of animals being present, but the detail of the manger seems to be what has led to the image of a stable – and many live Nativity scenes featuring farm animals.

Myth No. 3

“Manger” is another word for “stable.”

When people talk about a manger scene, or Jesus being born in a manger, or a star shining down on the manger, it is not clear they always understand that “manger” refers not to a barn, but to Jesus’ makeshift crib.

A manger is a trough used to feed animals. The word is derived from the French verb manger, meaning “to eat.” In first-century Judean houses, mangers were found both outside and inside the home, sometimes separating an interior space for people from a space where animals were kept. Thus, in the Nativity story, Mary may have had one at her disposal, despite not being in the immediate vicinity of a stable.

Myth No. 4

Three wise men attended Jesus’ birth riding on camels.

The best-dressed attendees at the birth of Jesus were the three wise men. Often mistaken for kings – think of the Christmas/Epiphany carol We Three Kings – these visitors from the east are described in the Gospel of Matthew with the Greek word magoi, or wise men. Nothing about the story’s language suggests that these visitors were monarchs or even that they were three in number. People commonly think there were three because of the gifts enumerated in the Gospel of Matthew: We are told that they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, but there could as easily have been two, four or eight wise men as well as three.

There is also no indication that the wise men visited Jesus as He lay in the manger, as is often shown on Christmas cards. When King Herod anxiously meets with them in Matthew 2:16, he thinks his reign might be threatened by the child they have come to visit, so he orders all boys two years old and younger slain. Thus Jesus could have been as old as two – a walking, talking toddler – when the wise men arrived.

In James Ussher’s, The Annals of the World, Ussher places the visit of the magi prior to the fortieth day. Some churches celebrate the Epiphany on January 6 (twelve days after Christmas) in honor of the visit of the magi. This is the origin of the “twelve days of Christmas” tradition. However, in light of the poor offering at the Temple, it makes more sense that Joseph and Mary were still poor and had not yet received the rather valuable gifts from the magi. Furthermore, they were likely still living with relatives during the census period and potentially in the same animal-housing portion of the place where Jesus was born and laid in a manger. It was not until later that they were living in a house when the wise men visited.

A few more facts that are frequently missed need to be noted by the readers of this story, so let me point them out.

First, there is no mention of camels in Matthew’s story of the wise men. Camels are only mentioned in Isaiah 60. Matthew does this by turning Isaiah 60 into a narrative of magi coming on camels to the place of Jesus’ birth and bringing with them the symbols of Jesus’ kingship, Jesus’ divine nature, and Jesus’ death.

Second, nowhere in Matthew are the wise men said to have been three in number. We read that into Matthew’s story from the list of three types of gifts that the wise men were supposed to offer. The text of Matthew says that “opening their treasures, they offered him gifts (note the plural) of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” It does not say one gold gift, one frankincense gift, or one myrrh gift.

Finally, read Matthew’s story carefully and you will see that the wise men came to a house in Bethlehem over which their guiding star rested. In that house lived Joseph with Mary and their baby. There was no stable. There was no journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be enrolled. There was no census ordered by Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Those are details from a later source and one that we have blended into Matthew’s story. Our task thus far is to see Matthew’s original birth of Jesus story in its own integrity. This was the first story of Jesus’ birth ever to be written and it did not enter the Christian tradition until the ninth decade of the Common Era! About ten years after Matthew’s first birth narrative, a second and quite different birth story would be added to the tradition by a gospel writer we call Luke.

The literal accuracy of the Bethlehem birthplace for Jesus also depends heavily on the story of the wise men being true. Yet no reputable biblical scholar today would seriously defend the historicity of these magi. This story, which is told only in what it was that motivated the family of Jesus to leave his noble Judean place of birth in Bethlehem in order to grow up in rural and rustic Galilee. That contrived explanation involved a number of supernatural messages received through dreams and even included a little royal intrigue, pitting the household of the monarch, King Herod, against this humble child who was supposed to be a threat to the king’s power (Matthew 2:7–23).

Myth No. 5

Three wise men were led by a star.

In Matthew’s rendition, these kings or magi are led by a magical star that from its heavenly perch in the east announces the birth of a king of the Jews (Matthew 2:2). That star then floats across the sky so slowly that these Middle Eastern stargazers can follow it to their destination (Matthew 2:9).

After all, if you pick a random star in the sky, point at the horizon, and predict that there is a baby about to be born in that direction, statistics – and birth rates – are on your side.

Stars that appear in the sky to announce earthly events are conceivable only in a world that viewed the sky as the roof of the earth and the floor of heaven. Stars in that worldview were a kind of heavenly lantern that God could hang out to be seen on earth to announce important births and were often so used in Jewish folklore. In one interpretive tradition of the rabbis, a star was said to have announced the birth of Abraham, the father of the nation; another announced the birth of Isaac, the child of promise; and still another, the birth of Moses, the one who most dramatically shaped Jewish consciousness.

If God lived beyond the sky, as people in that day generally assumed, with the earth as the object of constant divine attention, perhaps such a thing might be imaginable. It is not imaginable, however, in our space age. We live with a consciousness of the dimensions of space that first-century people could not have conceived. In our world, first airplanes linked us to destinations on the other side of our globe and then spaceships carried us to the far reaches of the moon. Unmanned spacecraft later carried us to other planets in our solar system. With help from the Hubble telescope we have learned that our galaxy, known as the Milky Way, has over 200 billion stars in it, most of them larger than the star that we call the sun. Our single galaxy measures over 100,000 light years in size; in other words, it would take light 100,000 years (traveling at its approximate speed of 186,000 miles per second) to go from one end of our galaxy to the other. To find the distance roughly in miles, multiply 186,000 by 60 seconds and then by 60 minutes and then by 24 hours and then by 365.25 days and you will have the distance traversed in a single light year; then multiply that total by 100,000 for the total mileage. The result is beyond our ability to count. Our modern consciousness has also had to embrace the fact that the whole visible universe, of which our enormous galaxy is but a tiny part, contains hundreds of billions of other galaxies, with more being discovered almost routinely as space continues to expand outward up to and including this very moment.

Stars are impersonal physical objects that do not announce earthly events. There are no wandering stars in our galaxy. Ben Rumson in the Broadway musical, Paint Your Wagon, may sing about a “Wanderin’ star,” but in reality, each star travels in a fixed trajectory that can be charted by computers, and its exact location in the sky on any date in the past or in the future can be calculated precisely. So in the real world there can be no such thing as a star able to lead the magi first to the palace of King Herod, where they learn from the king’s scribes that Bethlehem is to be the birthplace of the Jewish messiah, and then to their final destination—Bethlehem. Those ideas, so essential to the biblical story, are simply not credible except when we travel into the world of make-believe. They are pre-modern fantasies.

For most people the birth stories are probably the most familiar part of the New Testament. They are also probably the most misunderstood. They are victimized by the annual Christmas pageants held in most churches. They are distorted by hymns sung, oratorios heard, and sermons preached each Christmas season. They are celebrated in lawn crèches built, Christmas cards sent, and store windows dressed during the holiday season. Like all birth stories, however, they are not really about the birth of the hero, but about the adult life of the hero. Once we break them out of their literal prison, they take on a new wonder, a new meaning, and a new power.

Please keep these five myths in mind as you watch a Christmas pageant in your local parish church next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Nontraditional Christmas Message

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They say that “confession is good for the soul,” so let me make my confession to you. I must confess that for a few moments this week, I was assaulted by an almost irresistible temptation. I was possessed by the beguiling impulse to write a “traditional” Christmas message.

Well, let me tell you, I did not – I repeat – did not yield to that temptation! I must add how grateful I am that this fever left me almost as quickly as it came upon me. I realize now as I write this that I could not possibly have pulled it off.

A “traditional” Christmas message? What is that, you ask?

Well, be assured that it does not have a thing to do with stars in the sky, or angelic choruses, or shepherds on the hillside, or the Blessed Virgin Mary. If you think that those are the elements in the “traditional” Christmas message, you are a generation behind. I have read and/or heard too many contemporary “traditional” Christmas messages to know that none of those elements ever gets mentioned.

An article in one of the leading church magazines states: “These elements of the Christmas story are the Sunday School picture part, the elements of the romantic tale. . .” The article goes on to say that we Americans do not think in terms of kings, or angels, or Magi. These terms are dead to those who live in the age of the astronaut, the microchip, and the word processor. It is simply bad faith and pious dishonesty to obscure the reality of Jesus the Christ by celebrating his birth in this way.

The “traditional” Christmas message? Let me tell you about it.

Those writers who write such “traditional” messages usually begin by taking a stern look over the territory. They then set their pens or computers in their most pious stance and proceed to make everyone feel like lecherous, pagan libertines who have dragged the Feast of the Nativity down into the mire of a commercialized, a sentimentalized, and a sensualized festival of greed, debauchery and desire. I believe that you can see the direction that the “traditional” Christmas message takes.

Having established the thesis in the introduction, the prosecution then proceeds to pile up the damning evidence along several time-honored themes.

First, there is the theme of commercialism with which to deal. The reader is confronted by the staggering and soul-shaking evidence that the bill for this year’s Christmas spending will exceed 465 billion dollars! And please note, you will be told, that this figure excludes the extra charge on you electric bill for burning those ludicrous lights on that decorated Christmas tree! If that money were spent entirely on US made products it would create 4.6 million jobs. But it does not even have to be that big. If each of us spent just $64 on American made goods during our holiday shopping, the result would be 200,000 new jobs.

And then the gifts will be run down. Everything will be mentioned from the solid gold toothpick and the air-conditioned doghouse to the offering of a $700,000 week at three estates in the English countryside, including a helicopter trip to Alnwick castle. And for the more frugal, there is a modest $30,000 price tag for a walk-on role on Broadway’s Waitress musical. And then, perhaps to increase our cynicism, some writers will even throw in the story of the department store Santa Claus who was arrested for shoplifting.

Some years ago, Mad Magazine, in its usual irreverent look at humankind, reported what might be typical dialogues between people who receive Christmas gifts.

For example, there is the wife who opens a gift from her husband and exclaims: “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” And the husband responds: “Well, at least we agree on something.”

Or, there is the young girl who receives a gift from a young boy and says: “I’m not that kind of a girl!’ And the young boy responds: “Don’t worry; it’s not that kind of a gift.”

Or, there is the woman who gives a man a garish tie and says: “Wear it in good health.” And the man responds: “I’m sick already, just looking at it.”

You see, this is what you get for commercializing Christmas!

But the “traditional” Christmas message is not yet finished. There is a second theme: a discussion of the irony of the message of peace on earth and the way that the world really is. In the “traditional” Christmas message, you will be reminded that since the United Nations, an organization dedicated to the idea of saving humankind from the scourge of war, was organized over sixty years ago, we have not had one year in all that time without a war, or a rebellion, or a revolution, or civil strife. And what about the present threats of terrorism and Lord knows what else, to say nothing of the carnage that occurs in schools, businesses across this land, and on the streets of almost every American city. What a travesty it is, the writer will tell you, to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace in the midst of all this conflict.

And then, as if this were not enough, a third barrage is launched. The writer will observe that we are going to be feasting during this holiday season, and filling our already overstuffed stomachs with more of the rich foods that we really do not need. The point here is that it is hard to share the spirit of joy and peace when we realize that one-half of the people living in the world today will go to bed hungry tonight. So, go home, the writer of the “traditional” Christmas message will tell you, yes, go home and enjoy your Christmas dinner – if you can!

Well, I am sorry, but I just could not write such a “traditional” Christmas message!

It is to all of these redundant, cliché-ridden, hashed over, contemporary concerns for our desecrated and destroyed Christmas; to all of these inane platitudes that people speak as though they have just had a marvelous intellectual discovery that I say, “Hogwash!” and “Unadulterated balderdash!” And I will go even further, and repeat that wonderful, good old-fashioned American four-letter word uttered by Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe at the Battle of the Bulge when the German commander, Lt. Gen. Heinrich Freiherr von Luttwitz, asked him to surrender – “NUTS!”

Yes, “Nuts!”

So, we twentieth century Christians have spoiled Christmas, have we? What utter and absolute nonsense! Since when did Christmas depend upon us? Humankind did not plan Christmas, was not even ready for it, and did not accept it when it did come.

If we are spoiling Christmas today, think of who spoiled that first Christmas. The Sanhedrin called no special session to announce the birth of a savior. King Herod arranged no diplomatic reception. Caesar Augustus ordered no forty-eight-hour cease-fire. The shoppers in the Bethlehem bazaar did not pause in their trading to listen to the angels sing. There were no special services in the temple. There were no gifts exchanged. In fact, the first gifts came nearly two years later, and then, from the hands of foreign astrologers. The streets of Bethlehem were crowded with people, but they were not there to buy gifts of love. They were there to be counted, to be enrolled, and ultimately, to be taxed. Angels filled the sky with music, but only a few lowly shepherds heard it.

But – and note this well – none of this lack of response stopped the coming of the Christ! For, as Paul reminds us, “when the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4: 4-5) whether humankind was ready or not.

Here are the simple ingredients of the Christmas story: a helpless baby, a brutal adversary, and a protecting angel. And yet, in these ingredients are the essential facts of life. The Holy One of God came into the world as a fragile baby, and against that baby were arrayed all of the formidable powers of darkness for an unequal battle against an irresistible force. And so, each year, that irresistible force saves our Christmas for us.

We are going to destroy Christmas with rampant commercialism?

With frenzied partying?

With uncontrolled gift giving?

With immoderate spending?

With festering troubles in the world?

We are going to destroy Christmas? Ha! Go ahead and try. Be my guest. Not even old Ebenezer Scrooge could destroy Christmas!

And that truth is cause for our rejoicing. Christmas can never be destroyed!

So, tonight, or whenever it is convenient, in the circle of love that is your family and friends, rejoice. Rejoice in the knowledge that God cared enough to send his very best (with apologies to Hallmark cards) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Rejoice, for that is what we should do.

That is really what I want to say to you this Christmas. And, whew! Am I glad that I did not write that “traditional” Christmas message!

Merry Christmas!

 

 

Darkness and Light

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“Oh, we need a little Christmas, right this very minute…” from Jerry Herman’s Broadway musical, Mame.

These are desperate days on the planet. 

They are desperate days in our hearts.

Man, do we need “a little Christmas!”

We need the birth of something beautiful, that thrill of hope we used to sing about as children, to return again to our spirits.

We need the arrival of a great light into the deep, dark recesses of ourselves, where joy and wonder have all but vanished.

For Christians, the great festival that interrupts the darkness of human history is called Christmas, that traditionally has lasted from December 25th to January 6th. This twelve-day celebration was designed to recall the birth of Jesus who, the Christian faith system asserted, came to be called “the light of the world.” These nativity narratives, created by second-generation Christians, provided the content for this observance.

In the earliest birth story of Jesus, written by the author we call Matthew somewhere between the years 80-85, the primary symbol of light was a star – bright, radiant and beautiful – that illumined the darkness of the night. This star was said to have had the power to guide Magi through that darkness to the birthplace of this newborn savior in Bethlehem.

In Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, written sometime between the years 88-92, the light symbol was not a star, but a resplendent angel accompanied by a heavenly host, who cracked the midnight sky with heavenly brightness. To shepherds recoiling before this unearthly light, the tradition said that the angels announced the birth of Jesus, the “true light,” who “came down from heaven.”

Historical records from that period of time are scant, and no one today can date with precision the actual time of the birth of Jesus. That did not stop the tradition, however, from locating the celebration in the dead of winter. That choice was not designed to coincide with literal history, but to meet a deep and ancient human yearning that antedates by thousands of years both Judaism and Christianity.

As far back as human records go, it is clear that people in the northern hemisphere have observed with acts of worship that moment when the daylight stopped its relentless retreat into darkness and began its march back into the world. That human yearning for light to come to a dark world shaped Christmas. Indeed it captured it. That is why the celebration is located in the darkest month of the year, December, in the Western calendar.

Modern people have difficulty imagining the fears of our primitive human ancestors. We live today in an artificially lighted world. We can hurl back the darkness of night with the flip of a switch. We can travel in darkness far from home by turning on the headlights of our automobiles, or by utilizing the lights marking the landing fields of our airports. We live in cities with electrified streets and neon signboards.

For our ancestors, however, the only light of night was provided by the moon and the stars. When the moon faded each month into a total blackout the darkness of night was illumined only by the distant twinkling stars. When clouds made the stars invisible, the darkness was total. With darkness came danger and fear. The darkness was inhabited, it was suggested by a traditional Scottish prayer: “From ghosties and ghoulies/And long-leggedy beasties /And things that go bump in the night/Good Lord, deliver us!”

The relatively recent human ability first to capture fire and later actually to ignite it, was a gigantic step in the quest to defeat the always-threatening darkness. The vast majority of the human beings who have inhabited this earth lived with the presence of an unconquered and unrelieved darkness.

When one further embraces the fact that people in the ancient world did not understand the relationship between the heavenly bodies and the earth, it is easy to understand why mythology and ritualistic acts were wrapped around these mysterious natural wonders. Modern men and women deal with these realities in a quite secular manner. We manipulate our clocks with various time zones and with something we call “daylight savings time.” We anticipate and name the shortest day of the year as the winter solstice. We understand that the earth rotates on its axis as it journeys around the sun every 365¼ days. We know the months when we are closer to the sun and the months when we are farther away. None of this, however, was known by our forebearers. They only knew that the sun seemed to retreat into darkness as the winter came. They wondered why, and they speculated about this observable phenomenon using a wide variety of religious explanations. They lived with a chronic fear that one year the enveloping darkness that came each winter might finally capture the light of the sun forever and thus doom their lives to be lived without any light at all.

For this reason in almost every human culture there was a great religious celebration when the sun stopped its relentless retreat into an ever enveloping-darkness and began its slow but steady return. Christmas became a later historical expression of this ancient celebration. It thus reveals its northern hemisphere, and obviously human origins.

It is time to recognize that religious truth, like all truth, can only emerge out of human experience. Once that is understood, then religious people will recognize that their exclusive claims to possess some external, divine revelation is nothing but a part of our human security system. These claims also create the mentality that fuels that religious imperialism that, even in the twenty-first century, underlies human conflict.

The only way for the Christmas yearning for peace on earth to be achieved is for every religious system to face its human origins, and to recognize that all worshipers are nothing but human seekers walking into the mystery and wonder of the God, who is beyond anything that human minds can finally imagine. That would represent a gigantic step both into a new sensitivity and away from the negativity that religion perpetually pumps into the human bloodstream. In our observances of Christmas this year, that could well be our most important learning.

Man, do we need a little Christmas. . .right now!

THE WAR ON CHRISTMAS or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoyed the Coffee

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It will be starting soon if it has not already. The Atheists are coming with their oppressive, joy-killing, contrarian points of view, which they seek to cram down the throats of the Christian-consumerist majority.

It is coming — just as it does every year. There is no stopping it. As surely as trees are decorated, stockings are hung by the chimney with care, and Bing Crosby sings Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, we brace ourselves for it. It is just part of the routine. You could say it has become a tradition.

The “it” of which I speak is the so-called “War on Christmas.”

The buzz that the media creates touches nearly every part of an otherwise festive season filled with light, color and music. There will be heated arguments over the need for public funding for Christmas lights. Many nearly will come to blows debating the mere use of the word “Christmas” in schools and at public events. Long-winded television commentators will warn incessantly of “a war on Christmas” while politicians will drone on about the separation of church and state. Retailers and their customers will haggle over the use of the phrase Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays.” Scholars will debate over the pagan origins of modern Christmas celebrations while Christian “fundamentalists” will denounce efforts to remove the mention of Christ from any holiday event. I vividly remember that the song, Put Christ Back Into Christmas, was a favorite in the 1950s. Every Christmas season seems to elevate the debate to a new level of absurdity.

Ironically, eleven months of the year Christmas is left alone. The passionate debate largely subsides on December 26 until the season rolls around again. It is a war of the strangest sort. Ultimately, the central message of Christmas is peace and good will. Yet just in time for the season of peace all other burning issues are set aside for this one: the dreaded conflict called Christmas. For the month of December they go to battle. There are never any winners or losers – and the war never ends.

I believe both sides of the debate are wrong.

I believe the media is woefully irresponsible in fanning the flames of controversy.

I believe in the 95% Sentiment: most of us like to keep Christmas and we do not think there are many people offended by it.

I assert that there is a war on Christmas. It is an old and unsettled debate. But it has nothing to do with television pundits, school grounds, city parks or Supreme Courts. The war on Christmas is fought in the home and in the heart.

There is a real danger that one day we will have taken “the Christ out of Christmas.” But that will not happen when people stop saying “Merry Christmas” in favor of “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings.”

Christ is “taken out of” Christmas when we forget what his birth – and his life – are all about.

It is about caring for the poor.

It is about giving things away instead of trying to accumulate more.

It is about loving our neighbors (even ones who do not believe like we do and are not comfortable recognizing another religion’s holiday) as ourselves.

It is about going to other people’s level, instead of expecting them to come to ours.

There is a real war on Christmas. But it will not play out in advertising, marketing materials or on fast food marquees. The real war on Christmas happens in each of us when we try to reconcile the values of a consumer-driven culture with the birth of a savior who wants us to let go of the things of this world.

And that is a war that we must keep on fighting.

If it feels like the “War on Christmas” is getting really old, it is. Over ten years have passed since Bill O’Reilly first opened December with a segment called, “Christmas under Siege” – ten long years in which his cadences and refrains and echoing chorus have become as familiar to most Americans as Handel’s Messiah. Perhaps more familiar, in fact.

Not that Bill O’Reilly invented the idea.

Here is the real irony: For almost 500 years – 500 years! – the folks trying to get rid of Christmas – trying to put distance between Christian worship and mid-winter solstice festivities – were Christians themselves!

A group of English Reformed Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who sought to “purify” the Church of England from its Roman Catholic practices, maintained that the Church of England was only partially reformed. A cadre of these austerity-cloaked Christians who called themselves “Puritans” made their way to the so-called New World. The icy, grim ground they met upon arrival corresponded well with their vision of an authentic Christianity: one shorn of its Elizabethan frills and scrubbed of its insidious pagan stains. It was from this “pure” soil and purified Christianity that these individuals believed a model society would, and must, be born.

Their immaculate beacon would also be born from labor. Historians have noted that New England’s calendar was one of the most physically draining ever adopted, with colonists working practically every day save for the Sabbath, Election Day, public thanksgivings and “days of humiliation.” In 1629, Massachusetts Bay colonists went so far as to make it official company policy that those who appeared to be “idle drones” would not be allowed to live among them.

Christmas, then, posed a problem to Puritanical society. As practiced in Elizabethan England, the day offered both indulgence and idleness, and to the Puritans a painful marking of Christianity’s fall into wanton decadence. Wrote George William Curtis in an 1883 Harper’s Magazine article: “Ritualistic decorations and delights, the pomp and splendor of holy-days…were not only [relics] of popery, but their retention was a sign of the fond cleaving of the Church of England to the hideous abominations of Rome.”

Christmas was not just an annoyance to strong-willed Puritan colonists; its celebration was a threat to discipline, an instrument needed to realize the colonists’ divine, purifying mission. Should the Puritan colonies succeed, Christmas and all it represented had to be buried.

And so it was. Before they officially banned Christmas in 1647, Puritans used labor to suppress the holiday’s observance. Shops were to remain open on December 25, and on the first Christmas in Plymouth, colonists did not rest, but began to build colonial settlements. Wrote one Plymouth colonist: “Munday [sic], the 25th day, we went on shore, some to fell tymber, some to saw, and some to carry, so no man rested at all that day.” He added “that the closest the colonists came to commemorating Christmas was at the tail end of the day, when a master caused us to [have] some Beere [sic].”

Outside of Plymouth, the Massachusetts Bay Colony outlawed the holiday in 1659, punishing those caught celebrating Christmas with a fine. Colonists in Connecticut went so far as to prohibit the making of minced pies, dancing, playing cards and any instrument except – inexplicably – the drum, trumpet, or Jew’s harp on December 25.

The faithful held the holiday hostage until 1681, when laws banning Christmas were repealed. Over the decades, though, anti-Christmas attitudes had been woven into New England’s cultural fabric, and thus did not bend in accordance with the ambivalences of the law. Well into the nineteenth century, Boston schools remained open on December 25, and students who missed class to await the gifts of Santa – whom many Puritans believed to be both pope-like and, perhaps not so coincidentally, the Antichrist – were punished. The nearly 200-year Christian war on Christmas would only end after an 1870 federal intervention, when President Ulysses S. Grant made the day a federal holiday in an attempt to unite the post-war North and South.

But where Puritanical fears centered on how the holiday would affect labor and encourage excess, today’s Christmas crusaders focus the holiday around themes of consumption and fears of cultural erasure. In its annual “Naughty or Nice” list, for instance, the American Family Association rates a company’s apparent morality – and therefore deservedness of business – according to how often the word “Christmas” appears in its holiday advertisements. To receive a perfect score, an honor that no such business has received yet this year, a company must “promote and celebrate Christmas on an exceptional basis.” To be deemed “nice,” a business must use the term “Christmas” on a regular basis in its advertisements. “Naughty” companies such as The Gap Inc. and Amazon. Com, Inc. fail to acknowledge the holiday, or use its name in just one form of marketing. Occasionally, American Family Association will select one company on its “Naughty” list to boycott from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Indeed, the very material excesses against which the Puritans railed in their centuries-long “War on Christmas” are those that today’s crusaders use to quantify their perceived persecution – and employ as weapons against their apparent aggressors.

In a November 2015 article, American Family Association’s Vice President Ed Vitagliano ends his piece by saying that “a good smear [by the secular news media] is quicker and cheaper than actually trying to understand us.” Likewise, it might behoove Vitagliano to try to understand the history of the “war” that he inherits. For better or worse, the “War on Christmas” that actually existed was waged in labor and law, and as a founding principle. Today, the supposed war assumes a more reactionary stance, apparently taking place in holiday ads, chain coffee shops, and the salutations of supermarket cashiers. Quite frankly, that is a pretty cheap take on faith, and Christianity’s materialism-decrying savior. Maybe the Puritans were onto something after all.

Now, this phony war has a new field marshal and his name is Donald J. Trump, our President-Elect, who promised the moon and the Supreme Court to Religious Right leaders during his campaign. Trump has pledged to save Christmas from imagined threats. He promised, “If I become president, we’re gonna be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ at every store … You can leave ‘Happy Holidays’ at the corner.”  Another time he said, “[Remember] the expression ‘Merry Christmas?’ You don’t see it anymore. You’re [going to] see it if I get elected, I can tell you right now. I can tell you right now.” Michele Bachmann, that paradigm of intellectual curiosity, said, “When I was growing up, everyone said ‘Merry Christmas,’ even my Jews [sic] would say ‘Merry Christmas.’”

Trump pushed for a boycott of Starbucks because their coffee cups were not Christmas-y enough, and his son Eric said that his father decided to run for president after he read that the White House replaced the Christmas tree with a “holiday tree,” – a tree that did not exist because the report was not true.

Of course, it is not clear how Trump thinks a president could force people and businesses to say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays.” And it is even less clear how anyone who purports to be for religious liberty and limited government would think it is any business of the president’s how people express their good wishes.  But then again, this is the guy who told people on the campaign trail how great things will be when Americans are working together as “one people, under one God,  saluting one flag.” It is the phrase “under one God” that is catching the ear of some groups, who argue that the phrase is at odds with the American promise of religious freedom. “One God” immediately excludes Hindus, atheists, Native Americans – whole swaths of people who have a right to be part of the American identity, and under what we have established in this country – the notion that you can have multiple faiths and all still share the same ideal of being American.

Outrage is Donald Trump’s specialty, and he is not too proud to piggyback on other peoples outrage about, say, seasonal Starbucks cups. Vague, impossible campaign promises are Trump’s secondary specialty, and apparently the Starbucks cup brouhaha is good for one of those, too: “I have one of the most successful Starbucks in Trump Tower, Trump said during a campaign event in Illinois. “Maybe we should boycott Starbucks? I don’t know. Seriously, I don’t care. By the way, that’s the end of that lease, but who cares? If I become president, we’re all going to be saying Merry Christmas again, that I can tell you.

It was a rare moment of provocative apathy for The Donald, considering that he was referring to the kind of peevish campaign that is right up his alley: a video going around the Internet by Joshua Feuerstein – a person who calls himself “an American evangelist, Internet, and social media personality” – raging against “the age of political correctness” and the new seasonal coffee cups at Starbucks.

Do you realize that Starbucks wanted to take Christ, and Christmas, off of their brand-new cups? That’s why they’re just plain red,” Feuerstein said.

Well, just to be clear, the long-haired, chill-looking person on Starbucks’ cups is not Jesus – she is a sixteenth century Norse woodcut of a twin-tailed mermaid, or Siren. And though Starbucks says it “has told a story of the holidays by featuring symbols of the season from vintage ornaments and hand-drawn reindeer to modern vector-illustrated characters” since 1997, there was never a time when someone could sip a latte out of a nativity-scene-decorated cup.

Do you realize that Starbucks isn’t allowed to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to customers?” Feuerstein continued.

In an email, a Starbucks spokesperson said that the company’s baristas “are not provided a script or a policy around greeting customers. They are simply encouraged to create a welcoming environment to delight each person who walks through our doors.” So, no, Feuerstein is not right – there is no ban on Christmas greetings at Starbucks. That being said, Starbucks is a global company that serves millions of customers per day at over 23,000 stores in 68 countries, including the United States, which is home to people who celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, other holidays, or nothing at all in December. They cannot, as a matter of protocol, wish everyone a Merry Christmas. For those who really, really need their barista to wish them a Merry Christmas to find their delight, Feuerstein has a solution: “Tell her your name is ‘Merry Christmas,’ and then she will have to say it when she has fixed your hot beverage of choice.”

Yet, under President Trump, you will say Merry Christmas and you will like it. But one place you will not say “Merry Christmas” will be at the Starbucks in Trump Tower because it will be gone. Maybe gone along with all the other Starbucks, because of the Red Cup Battle of the War on Christmas leading to a devastating Trump-led boycott bringing down the entire company. Who knows?

And it will serve Starbucks right for taking the reindeer off of their coffee cups so that we can no longer drink lattes and simultaneously commemorate how, in the Bible, Rudolph’s nose lit up the manger where Mary was giving birth to Jesus while Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid, and Donner and Blitzen led a special mission to fly in the three wise men to the manger.

This Starbucks red cup thing needs no more press. Some are upset that Starbucks’ holiday disposable cup does not say anything about Christmas. I would hope that Christians are too busy with doing the things that Jesus said to do as he read from the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:17-19) than to worry about cardboard graphics.

With that said, here are my top five things to think about this December.

  1. Use a refillable mug, and fill it with decaf. It seems some folks do not need any more caffeine.
  2. Economy and evangelism have a tense marriage. We should host a potluck, and have both sides sit down for a good conversation. It seems like one is trying to tell the other how to live rather than listen to what it is about.
  3. Jesus actually never celebrated Christmas; he celebrated Hanukkah (Chanukah.) Boycotting an establishment because they say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” seems to me to be just plain stupid. If someone says “Happy Holidays” to you, just say “Thank you.” Don’t be a jerk. For those keeping score, using “Holidays” is more correct anyway.
  4. There is no war on Christmas … however, there is one in Syria. ‘Nuff said.
  5. Jesus’ birth is the eye of a storm that continues to turn the world upside down. Jesus was born in the lowliest place on earth and the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest.” So fill your cup with good things (red, blue, rainbow … I do not care) and share goodness sacrificially with the world.

The Christmas season is officially upon us. Well, at least Advent is upon us.

The holiday decorations are up in malls and homes. Shoppers are out in full force. And soldiers are enlisting, once again, for the all-important annual tradition – the war on Christmas.

There is no doubt that the war on Christmas continues and Bill O’Reilly may have fired the first shot in the battle with an opinion segment a week before Thanksgiving. Over the next few weeks, the good cheer of the season will be peppered with stories of oppressive governments and secular retailers facing off against valiant defenders of Jesus’ birthday celebration, which probably did not occur on December 25 in the first place, but do not let that observation get in the way.

And as the war heats up again, I realized that when it comes to this annual tradition, I am a proud card-carrying Christmas pacifist!

So “Happy holidays,” er, I mean. . . “Merry Christmas!”

 

 

 

 

 

Hope for the Future? Look at the Recent Past!

beautiful-things2Running low on hope these days? Join the crowd. You are in good company.

For some of us, the thought of a Donald Trump presidency is a yuge downer. I only hope it does not take longer than four years to get over it.

For many others of us it has been a tall order to try and fend off the discouragement that seems unrelenting right now; too much bad news for our battered minds to contain, too much sadness for us to bear. Sleep and rest have been hard to come by. Joy seems in short supply. I get it.

So if your eyes are tired from scanning the horizon, straining to see something good off in the distance, in the face of all this not-so-goodness in front of you, well, I do have some good news for you. In order to feel hopeful about the future, all you have to do is to take a look at the recent past.

Call me a cock-eyed optimist, but there are some good things that happened thus far in 2016.  These are not in any particular order and all are from newspaper articles or Internet sources:

New chemotherapy breakthroughs have increased the 5-year survival for pancreatic cancer from 16% to 27% (and are getting better)

Scientists figured out how to link robotic limbs with the part of the brain that deals with intent to move so people do not have to think about how they will move the limb, it can just happen.

Child mortality rates are down everywhere and they keep going down.

Thanks to the ice bucket challenge, the gene responsible for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, has been found, meaning that we are closer to an effective treatment. Let me rephrase that: we are closer to getting a treatment for a very bad disease because a lot of people (including really hot celebrities) got wet.

A solar powered plane circumnavigated the world.

Michael Jordan donated 2 million dollars to try and help bridge connection between police and the community.

Tiger numbers are growing.

And manatees.

And pandas.

Pakistan has made strides toward the outlawing of honor killings.

70,000 Muslim clerics declared a fatwa (a ruling on a point of Islamic law given by a recognized authority) against ISIS.

Pokémon Go players went insane with placing lure modules near hospitals for sick kids.

California is now powering over 6 million homes with solar power, a record in the United States.

Volunteers in India planted 50 million trees in 24 hours.

Apparently world crime as a whole has drastically declined as a whole in the last couple of decades.

Coffee consumption has been proven to help curtail cancer and suicide rates.

Speaking of coffee, Starbucks figured out how to donate perishable food in a food safe way.

500 elephants were relocated to a better, safer and bigger home.

We made massive strides in Alzheimer’s prevention.

The ozone layer is repairing itself and all the work we did to get rid of those aerosol chemicals was actually worth it.

A new therapy developed in Israel that could cure radiation sickness.

The Anglican Church resolved to solemnize same-sex unions the same as opposite-sex unions, a resolution that required a super majority of all three orders of the church (laity, clergy, and bishops).

The Rabbinical Assembly issued a resolution affirming the rights of transgender and non-conforming individuals.

Precision treatments for cancer are hitting clinical trials and are WORKING!

Dentists are once again providing free care to veterans who need it.

The Orlando Shakespeare Festival showed up with angel wings to block the view of funeral-goers for the Orlando Pulse victims from anti-gay protesters.

Rise Women’s Legal Centre opened.

Death by heart disease has decreased by 70% in the United States.

Two brothers saw color for the first time, thanks to specially-designed glasses.

Portugal ran its entire nation solely on renewable energy for four days straight.

A retiree launched a project to transport 80 endangered rhinos to an Australian reservation to save the animals from poaching.

An Afghan teacher has delivered books via bicycle to villages that lack schools.

Harriet Tubman is going to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.

200 strangers attended the funeral of a homeless World War Two veteran with no family.

A teen battling cancer married his sweetheart.

A bank firm paid for college tuition for the children of employees who died in the 9/11 attacks.

A new medicine has been shown to increase melanoma survival rate to 40%.

Over 800 Boko Harem Hostages were rescued by the Nigerian Army.

Toys“R”Us is offering quiet shopping hours for children with autism this holiday season.

Volunteers made special tiny Halloween costumes for neonatal intensive care unit babies.

A 4-year old befriends a lonely man and helped him heal after losing his wife.

Families grew.

People survived cancer.

People overcame depression.

Any kind of victory, even if it affects only one person, is a victory.

Now for the pop culture good news:

Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar! Everyone reading this lived long enough to see Leo finally get what he deserved.

There is a new Harry Potter book.

And a movie.

Harry Potter has no plans of vanishing with time.

A father gave candy to passengers on a flight so his little girl could trick or treat on Halloween.

Good things that have nothing to do with the year but will hopefully make you feel better:

Puppies.

Chocolate.

Rainbows.

Rain. (I like listening to rain. It is one of the most calming sounds.)

Cartoons.

Kissing.

Music.

Friends.

If you are a religious person, you are an imperfect masterpiece.

If you are not a religious person, then you are a splendid coincidence.

Any time spent with loved ones, be they family or friends, is a good time. Trust me on this.

Laughter is the best medicine:

I rear-ended a car this morning, the start of a REALLY bad day!

So, there we were alongside the road and

slowly the other driver got out of his car.

You know how sometimes you just get

soooo stressed and little things just seem

funny?

Yeah, well I couldn’t believe it. He was a

DWARF!!!

He stormed over to my car, looked up at me,

and shouted, “I AM NOT HAPPY!!!

So, I looked down at him and said, “Well,

then which one are you?”

 And that’s how the fight started. . .

When hope is running low, do what Eric Idle did in the film, Monty Python’s Life of Brian and sing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. You will feel much better! Guaranteed!

And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Please feel free to add other good news, even if it is something small like you ate cheesecake. THAT is good news.