Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Fuss Over What to Call Christmas

What's going on here? Can we use the word "Christmas" in a public setting, or must we always say "Holidays?" Must "Christmas" be restricted to Christian settings or used only in communities of shared faith? Stores and advertisers are caught in the crossfire between opposing parties. One resident was even advised by the neighborhood association to remove a creche from his front yard.

Fortunately, I can explain. We are seeing a battle between two mind sets. One I will call traditional, and the other I will call multi-cultural or pluralistic. It all stems from the cultural transformation that began in the 60's that did two things:(1)it heightened the sense of identity within groups, especially those that had been subordinated by the reigning culture, and (2) it stimulated a demand that their rights, interests, and preferences be given equal recognition. Women, blacks, gays, other minority groups, along with secularists, were affected by this two-fold change change of outlook. The impact reverberated though society. The result was a rise of a multi-cultural consciousness which insists that previously neglected or subordinated groups receive equal regard in a new pluralism in which hegemony by one cultural group or perspective is not allowed.

This provoked a reaction by the traditionalists who felt their interests, values, customs, and preferences were threatened. Accustomed to having their way in the public domain, including commerce, they insisted that what has been common practice remain so.

So the battle is underway. What is funny about the traditionalist position is that tradition in this context means roughly the prevailing practices during the lifetime and memory of the cultural majority and their parents and grandparents or roughly the first half of the 20th century. Forgotten is that an annual observance of the birth of Jesus is not a New Testament practice. Memory of the resurrection was far more important. Neglected also is the fact that December 25 involved the adoption and Christianizing of a pagan sun festival in the 4th century.

More pertinent is the fact that the early Puritans hated Christmas as unbiblical. In Massachusetts from 1659 to 1681 it was a crime to celebrate the occasion by feasting and not working. Until well into the 19th century this reticence regarding and objection to Christmas observance continued among many Protestants. Not until the 20th century did it acquire the importance in commercial and domestic life it has today with all the symbols and practices we all know so well. Among the reasons it is such a big deal today were the growing popularity of St. Nick based on the images from Clement Moore's poem and the drawings of Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly. With the rise of high-powered advertising and the credit card, the stage was set, symbolized by the annual Friday shopping frenzy the day after Thanksgiving.

Christians, especially Protestants, are accustomed to dominating the culture and having special privileges regarding the customs, symbols, habits, and practices surrounding it the season. Some are upset at the new pluralism that demands that public displays, language, and observances reflect the multicultural reality of America today.

So what shall we do? The logic of capitalism will work well in commerce to find the proper accommodation of conflicting demands that will maximize profit margins. I would urge all other parties to cool it, simmer down, take a deep breath, and relax. We are all overly sensitive these days about our own prerogatives. The foundations of civilization, decency, and religion are not at stake here. Cosmic equilibrium does not hang in the balance. Christians should realize that the celebration of Christmas in the familiar ways of a half-century ago is a historically contingent development and not of the essence of the faith and that they do not require recognition by businesses and governments to authenticate their religion.

Pluralists and secularists should recognize that huge numbers of Americans identify themselves at least nominally as Christians and give them a little leeway if this is recognized publicly in some ways (though not officially by governments) in non-intimidating, non-coercive ways that involve no loss of their own worth or identity. Both sides need to give a little, calm down, and quell the hysteria.

No great principles of natural right or Constitutional validity are in question regarding whether Sears courts shoppers with Christmas or holiday advertising. Religious symbols and language peculiar to a particular religion should, of course, not be given governmental support or sanction in the public sphere common to us all. Beyond that, we would all do well to loosen the springs of our sensitivities and allow some room in the public sphere for non-threatening, non-congenial practices, even if they get into our space a bit in ways we would not prefer.

Do I expect my advice to be taken? Of course not! The zealots on both extremes of the spectrum are too wrapped up in their own partisan concerns to let anything like civility, tolerance, perspective, common sense, a sense of humor, historical fact,and -- well -- the Christmas/holiday spirit moderate their passions.

Perhaps we could all say "Yo Saturnalia" (let's hear it for the god Saturn), which after all was the original meaning of the day taken over by Christians.

PS With thanks to the column by Adam Cohen in The New York Times (Sunday, December 4, 2005).