Dreaming of a Black Xmas

By my best reckoning, Thanksgiving has not yet taken place this year. Since Halloween, such as it was, is now over, we must still be in November. As I was exiting my office building last Wednesday, I noticed that the holiday tree was already going up in the lobby. A few blocks away and I heard the first Salvation Army bells of the season and shouts of holiday cheer. The great tree in Rockefeller Center was being erected. (I picture burly guys with a super-sized tree stand swearing in the cold air—”Left, nudge it to the left!”) Maybe it’s just a storm-weary city glad to be rid of Sandy, but it does seem to be a bit early to me. Holidays, in any modern sense of the word are about opening wallets and injecting cash into the system. The very corpuscles of capitalism. I enjoy holiday cheer as much as the next guy or gal, but I don’t mind waiting for it to arrive. Antici-

Holiday seasons are as old as holy days themselves. In our work-obsessed culture, however, convincing bosses of the regenerative utility of granting more than a single day off at a time is an uphill battle. Productivity is what we’re all about. And so we lengthen our public show of holidays instead. Thanksgiving’s not much of a banker except for grocers, and although turkeys may make great primary school decorations, they don’t really match the productivity and professionalism that corporate offices like to promote. The December holidays, however, give us Black Friday. Listening to the news over the last few days, it is clear that many people are biding their time, already ready to get those distant family members out the door, and let’s get those bargains! pation.

Holidays reflect what we hold sacred. I’m not one of those purists grinches who see gift-giving as some inherent evil—in fact, giving things away is one of the under-utilized tenets of most major religions—but I do wonder how much of it is an appeal to the ego. I feel good when I make someone else happy. Yet at some level, I’ve indebted them to me. I’ve made a business deal. The holy days have been infected with capitalism. Warm memories of not having to go to school for nearly two whole weeks, being with my family—the place I was unquestioningly accepted—and getting presents as well? What could be more sacred than that? But I’m getting ahead of myself. It is still mid-November. After all, Black Friday (and what’s that day before that called?) hasn’t even started yet.

A waif in a manger?

England’s Christian Gift

As much a part of the holiday season as Santa Claus and baby Jesus, the Salvation Army bell-ringers are out in full force. As I drop a quarter in the bucket, I ponder the strange lineage of this denomination. When the cheerful holiday shopper convivially donates spare change, few, I suspect, know that they are supporting a church. The Salvation Army is one of the bewildering number of denominations to spring from English Christianity. The Church of England, small in the United States, but imperial in much of the world, grew amid a religious unrest that spun off countless dissenters. We all know the story of Henry VIII and his not-so-merry wives. His political move to focus the official religion of England on the crown led to the Puritan resistance. Puritans left England for the Netherlands, and then on to America where they flocked to New England to develop into Calvinistic Congregationalists.

Meanwhile back in Amsterdam, some of the English Separatists evolved into Baptists. Baptists were also congregational in polity and also found the religious freedom of America to be appealing. (Now they select our elected officials.) The Puritans had helped develop the Presbyterian movement as well, with dissenters in Switzerland. Still at home in Britain, the Church of England waffled between Catholicism and Protestantism for some time. The evangelical fervor that emerged with the Wesley family led to the Methodist Church, which remained attached to the Church of England until its founder’s death. In America the Methodist Church grew rapidly. During the era of religious revivals the Adventist movement grew out of Methodism, as did the Church of the Nazarene, the Holiness movement, and Pentecostalism. All of them today are major denominations. Even the Anabaptists tip their wide-brimmed hats in the direction of the English dissenters. The Plymouth Brethren, inventors of the Rapture, were another English-derived denomination, as were the Wesleyan Churches.

What does all of this have to do with the Salvation Army? The Salvation Army was founded in London by a Methodist minister, William Booth, and his wife Catherine. The movement adopted quasi-military mythology and ranks, and soon grew into a church of its own that supported what would later become the Social Gospel cause. Known primarily for their charitable works, they are yet one more splinter from the tree of English Christianity. Perhaps the Christmas tree is an appropriate analogy for the Christianities to spring from Henry VIII’s loins. Like the pine’s many branches, each with its ornaments, Christianity in England sent its twigs in all directions. Counted together, the descendants of English Christianity far outnumber any other Protestant grouping. Just a thought to share while waiting for the quarter to drop.

‘Tis the Season

A news story last week related how a traditional park area in Santa Monica, California had been “taken over” by atheists who wanted equal time with traditional Christmas displays. The park, which houses 21 display areas generally populated by nativity scenes of one sort or another, had so many requests for space this year that a lottery was instituted—a lottery that the atheist groups won. Claiming 18 of the spaces, the atheists groups have vastly reduced the visibility of traditional Bethlehem mythology. Does anybody else feel a culture war coming on?

The whole “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaign that has been fermenting over the past decade or so has made many Christians paranoid. Society has forgotten, they claim, whose birthday we’re celebrating. A plain view of the facts, however, calls this assertion into question. No one bothered to record the date of Jesus’ birth. The stories about it, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, were written after a lifetime of reflection by people who were not eyewitnesses to any of the events. Historians of the era mention no celestial anomalies and there are no records of crazy old Herod killing babies among his own people. (His domestic affairs, however, may be quite another story.) What is absolutely clear is that the stories have grown with the telling. Many a child can tell you the names of the three wise men. Luke doesn’t even place them at the first Christmas, does not name them, and does not say there were three. No records of Zoroastrian migrations to Israel verify this story either.

The true loss is the loss of story. We live in a society that abuses the words “just” and “only.” That’s just a myth. That’s only a story. Ancient people—from the time of Jesus—appreciated the truths a story conveys. Consider the parables of Jesus. They cite not sources neither do they seek verification. They are only stories. They are also cited as the basis of many church teachings. Even atheists can be taught to appreciate the value of stories. Who could object to a myth advocating peace, harmony, and goodwill? Even if it’s just a myth.

Santa Claus might come to Santa Monica’s rescue. Yes, diehard fans of historical veracity will say there was a saint called Nicholas. We all agree that he didn’t wear red velvet trimmed in white and that he didn’t possess magical, northern latitude cervid stock. Even before the days of forced air heat he didn’t slither down every chimney in the world in one night. Few would dispute, however, the value of giving gifts of good will. Just ask any member of the Salvation Army who appear at this season every year. Instead of arguing about whom to exclude, why don’t we invite everyone to our celebration? Jesus, angels, Santa, Jack Frost, Heat Miser, and Christopher Hitchens—what a party this could turn out to be!

Is there no room in the manger?

Bibles and Dolls

To celebrate my wife’s birthday, yesterday we drove to the historic Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania to see a show. The Playhouse has an illustrious history, having hosted performances including such players as Kitty Carlisle, Lillian Gish, Bert Lahr, and Robert Redford. We went to see a production of Guys and Dolls, the musical based on characters and situations penned by Damon Runyon. (My first introduction to Runyon, I must admit, was in the Alice Cooper anthem, Department of Youth.) Although we attended a performance of the musical back in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a couple of decades ago, I’d forgotten how much the Bible moves the plot along.

Naturally, any love story that involves a Salvation Army cadet will have its religious conflicts, but it is Sky Masterson’s knowledge of the Bible that drives Sarah Brown to first give him serious attention. Without the arresting power of the Holy Bible, the love interest would never have sparked. As I frequently tell my students, without some knowledge of the Bible, American society just can’t be understood. Even Sky Masterson’s real name is Obadiah (“servant of Yahweh”).

Damon Runyon was anything but a saint. His lifestyle was diametrically apposed to that envisioned by his fictionally pure Sarah Brown – a heavy drinker, smoker, and perhaps womanizer, he was a friend of crime bosses and a noted gambler. But Runyon, like most Jazz Age Americans, knew his Bible. One of his famous phrases derives from the book of Ecclesiastes: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s how the smart money bets.” From the quiet streets of an artsy hamlet in Pennsylvania to the glitzy lights of Broadway, the Bible still makes itself known. The smart money is on the one who learns to spot it.

An unorthodox sort of prophet