Keeping Christ in Christmas

I was in the grocery store the other day, shopping for Christmas.  A nice cut of meat was on sale that we wanted for Christmas dinner.  (I hope it survives getting frozen in the interim.)  So I was chatting with the butcher about what our families like to cook for Christmas.

I live in a pretty diverse part of New Jersey.  At the checkout I was chatting with a woman I see regularly there; I gather from her veil, and from her being an African American with an Arabic name, that she is probably a Muslim, like many people in my city.  (Perhaps sometime I can write about black Muslims; I understand that’s a complicated proposition, involving both ill-treatment by Christians and a desire to live a devout life.  But this is not about my judgment of her soul.)

So I figured, not trying to have any deep thoughts about diversity, just to have a polite pleasant interaction with my neighbor, that talking about what meat we eat for Christmas was probably not the best way to be loving toward her at that particular moment in the checkout line.  I didn’t hide that it was for Christmas, but we shifted to talking about family, and kids (we just had our seventh!), etc.

The same thing happened a few days later, at another grocery store, where I was buying stocking stuffers but thought there was a decent chance the checkout guy was Jewish. 

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And it occurred to me after that last encounter, as it had not occurred to me before: not so long ago, this was something really controversial.  The maybe-Jewish guy said, “Happy holidays,” and on the way out the door, after pleasantly saying “you too!” I remembered that not so long ago we were fighting about saying, “No!  Merry Christmas!  It’s not just ‘Holidays,’ you heathen!”  Keep Christ in Christmas!

Now, I do think we should witness to our faith.  But I want to challenge what it means to keep Christ in Christmas. 

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Keeping Christ in Christmas certainly means that my family tries to pray extra during Advent, and keep a sense of waiting, and to go to Mass and pray extra and read the Bible at Christmas, and decorate with the creche, etc.  When my secular family comes to visit, we’re planning to keep up our traditions of Christmas prayer.  Certainly we need to keep Christ in Christmas. 

And certainly, we should look for chances of all kinds to witness to our faith.

But keeping Christ in Christmas is different from keeping the word “Christmas” in the holidays.  Demanding that the Jewish or Muslim checkout people hear me say “Christmas,” I propose, has very little to do with witnessing to Christ. 

In fact, in our culture, the word “Christmas” has little obvious reference to Christ.  If I want to witness to Christ, I need to talk about him.  Saying, “Merry Christmas” to someone who is not a Christian is just keeping the word “Christmas” in the holidays.  Whatever that is, it is a different thing from keeping Christ in Christmas.

The phrase “Merry Christmas” points us a step further.  There’s nothing Christ-centered about the word “Merry.”  “Merry” is about a particular element of Victorian culture that somehow we like to preserve.  From a tiny bit of research, it looks to me like the phrase came into popular parlance through the song “We wish you a merry Christmas,” which makes no reference whatsoever to Christ.  The phrase “Merry Christmas” has everything to do with “figgy pudding”—that is, with sensual indulgence and with Victorian culture, which was not especially Christian—and almost nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

I’ll keep saying Merry Christmas, in appropriate contexts.  “God rest ye merry, gentlemen” does say “remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas day!”  (Though it doesn’t quite say “Merry Christmas.”)  But let’s not confuse that phrase with keeping Christ in Christmas.  Keeping Christ in Christmas is something different.

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Going a step further, all of this leads us to some things about the New Evangelization.  We live in a unique historic period, in at least three ways. 

First, modern travel has created multicultural societies as never before.  Perhaps you live in a place that is mostly Christian: fine!  But realize that much of the world, like my corner of New Jersey, is not mostly Christian anymore.  More than perhaps any other time in world history (imperial Rome might be an exception, but I don’t think so), we live in a society where we can make few assumptions about the religion of our neighbors; we certainly cannot assume they are the kind of people who celebrate Jesus Christ at Christmas.  “New Evangelization” is a reminder that we need to evangelize people who are not Christians, not assume they already are. 

Second, modern technology has created a society uniquely forgetful of God.  Most societies in history have had screwed up ideas about God (or the gods)—but at least they had some spiritual awareness.  Today, we can’t even assume that God is on people’s radars.  When they think about Christmas, they think about material things: figgy pudding, stockings, lights, gifts, food.  The New Evangelization has to begin with reminding them that there even is a supernatural realm. 

And third, we live in the first post-Christian society in the world.  In ancient Rome, Christians were a minority, but only Christians celebrated Christmas, so if you talked about Christmas, you were talking about Christianity.  In most parts of today’s world, Christmas means—well, it means shopping, and food, and stocking stuffers, all the stuff in my interactions above, but it has nothing to do with God or Jesus Christ.

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We often get into the wrong arguments.  We should fight hard to keep Christ in Christmas.  We need to celebrate him in our homes, and in our Churches, far more than we do.  We need to bear witness to him, however and wherever we can. 

But saying Merry Christmas to non-Christians, I submit, is something quite different from keeping Christ in Christmas. 

How will you bear witness to Jesus Christ this holiday season?

eric.m.johnston

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