There were probably about half-a-dozen animated Christmas specials I recall watching as a child. The two that became fixtures, and remain part of my present holiday ritual, are It’s Christmas Charlie Brown and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I remember watching them from early days—of course you had to wait until their respective channels announced their advent in TV Guide (just writing that makes me feel older than the Grinch). Commuting wasn’t an issue then, so watching television was as common as candy canes and hopeful stockings. As an adult, though, you see things you overlooked, or simply accepted, as a child. I guess that’s what “believing in Christmas” is all about. The willful suspension of disbelief.
I’ve commented on these Christmas specials before. Charlie Brown has so many inconsistencies that an old biblical scholar can’t help but think of J, E, D, and P. What does the signage on Lucy’s Psychiatric Help booth really say? How many branches are on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree? How does Sally get to the school before her big brother? The animation is clearly a little off—Lucy appears to emerge from the center of her booth’s wooden top as she gives advice to the woeful Charlie Brown with his Trump’s-been-elected-type depression. Still, Linus’ rendition of Luke’s Christmas story brings it home every time. Compare that with the Grinch.
Those who see a war on Christmas (there’s not) seldom cite the Grinch. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is entirely secular. No mention of a special birth. No angels or shepherds. Just a mean old man and his dog. The Grinch shares with Charlie Brown its message of looking beyond the commercialization of Christmas. In the case of the much better animated Grinch (although I still can’t figure out why that one Who’s hat repeatedly flashes from white to blue and back) it would seem that religion matters less than spirit. The Who’s Christmas song with its strange, non-English words, is a celebration of difference. Diversity. Even that angry old man who would steal Christmas itself is welcome in the end. The only war on Christmas is one that has been spawned in the imagination of those who fit the Grinch’s description in Thurl Ravenscroft’s rendering of Dr. Seuss’s lyric. Those my age will understand, and unless you were born yesterday, I suspect that you’ll get my meaning.
Now that Black Friday and Thanksgiving are behind us, the holiday season compels us to think of what comes next. Whether it is Hanukkah or Christmas or Kwanza, people are preparing to celebrate during the longest nights of the year, hoping to encourage light to return. It is a most primitive urge. Darkness is easy to come by; light takes a little more effort. In the western world the season was largely instituted by the celebration of Christmas, although this took many, many years to catch on. Now it is a begrudging nod in the direction of workers who spend more and more of their time on the job since the internet makes it difficult to claim that we are unavailable. Smart phones, smart watches, tablets, and computers are ubiquitous, so access to work email is only a click away. In any case, the holiday season invariably brings stories of offended people to the surface.
A recent piece in The Baxter Bulletin, sent to me by my wife, rehearses the story of Baxter County, Arkansas and the challenge against a nativity scene on a courthouse lawn. Such stories always seem to me to be cases with no winners. A courthouse should remain neutral territory, but the nativity scene hardly seems an offensive weapon. I can’t claim to know a great deal about the history of creche scenes, but it doesn’t appear likely that they were ever covert attempts to convert. They were celebrations, and nobody has a problem with them as long as they’re kept on private property or church garths. I do wonder, however, if driving them out of public sight really has any purpose. We all know that this time of year is gearing up to holidays when the ordinary takes the back seat for a few days and we can stop the rat race and reflect on a wonderful myth of biblical proportions.
Tree, bush, or asherah?
Similar stories are unfolding in countless venues now that December is practically here. Even stopping into Starbucks for a cup of coffee can land you in the middle of a culture war. It would seem to me that in this troubled world we might instead try to focus on peace. Whether or not the story of the manger has any historicity at all, the fact is the first century was a period of extreme unrest. This was a moment to pause and imagine what a world without war might be like. Now the holidays have become an occasion for declaring a new kind of sniping war about who has the right to make reference to a legendary event. Or where they may do so. In some cases there may be legitimate cause for concern. Most of the time, however, only those fixated on belligerence manage to draw everyone in to a fractured fairy tale of a holiday season where money is at stake.
Entitlement comes in many forms. Culturally we’ve been sensitized to substituting “holidays” for “Christmas,” although the reason we spend money at this time of year is well known. Although technically not a Christian nation, the United States has a large number of Christian believers and always has. Charles Dickens certainly participated in the invention of Christmas, but the commercial aspect is very much an American thing. So much so that we can’t wait to get Thanksgiving out of the way to dip our fingers into Black Friday, a holiday in its own right. Starbucks has, for many years, shifted to a banal, neutral winter-themed cup design, to get customers into the spirit of spending. Who really needs to pay five dollars for a cup of joe? Wrap it like a present and the cash flows more freely. So the tempest in a coffee pot over the “war on Christmas” by choosing a simple red (and by default green) cup design became front-page headline news recently. Had we dissed the Almighty or the babe in a manger by going red?
Religious groups feel increasingly threatened. Not everyone thinks globalism is a good thing. We try to educate our children, but many religious groups insist on home schooling to avoid the contamination of an open mind. Any act, no matter how trite or banal, may be perceived as an attack. Nobody seems to think that stopping in to pay so much for a cup of coffee may be a sin in its own right. The economy has tanked and bumped along the bottom ever since I’ve entered the professional sector. And yet, Starbucks has flourished. No matter how down you are, a little arabica stimulus can’t hurt. It has, apparently, become the bellwether of how Christmas-friendly we really are.
Ironically, the Christmas decorations begin appearing in stores before the spectre of Halloween. Stop in to pick up some last-minute scares and you’ll find them on the bargain rack as the red and green tide take over the valuable shelf-space. We gleefully move from one spending holiday to another. And in the midst of it all, we stop to complain about the design of our coffee cup? I try to avoid disposable items whenever I can. I don’t collect holiday cups from coffee vendors. I wonder what all the fuss is about when the world is full of so many serious problems. If I sound cranky to you, there’s a good reason. I haven’t had my morning coffee yet.
Despite the war on Christmas, it came. To be honest, I haven’t yet gone to the window this morning to see if smoky remains litter the street of my small town, but there is something decidedly positive inside me that tells me that it’s Christmas. Religious holiday or not, any celebration that can make people feel at peace for even just a day is worth it. Christmas has always been a time of sharing. Not to exclude our southern hemispheric and equatorial companions, but the darkest time of year requires something to lift the human spirits. I wonder if even the Romans back in their salubrious Mediterranean climate felt a bit of a pinch at this time of year as they planned the festivity that marked the shortest day of the year. Without precise timekeeping, it is difficult to know exactly when the solstice is—to me for about a fortnight is looks dark pretty much all the time. I catch the bus to work in the dark, arrive at work before sunrise, leave work in the dusk and by the time I’m on the bus home it is dark. These few days around the solstice I know that I could use a little break.
How like human nature to take such a wonderful concept and turn it into something to fight over. I don’t know the religious preferences of everyone at work. I suspect a large number might be Jewish, and some are likely Muslims. Many, I suspect, have no religious leanings at all. Yet today they all have a gift, tree or not. They are paid for not working. The gift might be extra sleep, or it might be the light that neighbors shed in the darkness with gaudy displays of Christmas lights, or holiday lights, or just colorful lights—what is the difference, really?
The whole concept of a war on Christmas has to do with feelings of superiority. Those who take up the war cry feel proprietary rights to a holiday their religion did not invent. We don’t know when Jesus was born. The best guess scholars have is that it was in April, around about the time we celebrate Easter, I suppose. Christmas was despised and scorned by many Christians until the nineteenth century, the very ancestors of the conservative factions that claim Christmas as their own banned the holiday for its papist trappings and pagan undertones. Now they wish to claim Christmas as uniquely theirs. Like the Grinch up on Mount Crumpit, I put a hand to my ear and learn something new. Christmas is for everyone. Any holiday that can bring peace to this troubled mind for a few hours is a day to be shared.