Opinion: Let’s drop the arguments about a Christmas war
Every year the Halloween decorations fall, giving way to the Remembrance Day poppies, and then comes the Christmas season. Stores start playing Christmas carols early and decorations adorn store shelves. People are starting to cut back on their schedules as many prepare to spend time with loved ones. We begin to familiarize ourselves with another season that ends with the final bugle call on November 11: the “Christmas War”.
Or maybe it’s more accurate to say it’s the season for arguing about whether or not there’s is a war at Christmas. The Guardian made a annual hostility parody while FoxNews is accused of having declared. Whether or not you believe there’s a war on Christmas, it’s hard to deny that December brings out the worst in some people.
Every year, mobs online claim that any non-Christian decoration or party without Christmas iconography is part of the battle. Just as the opening strains of Mariah Carey’s « All I Want for Christmas » blare from the mall’s loudspeakers, the sudden arrival of Starbucks Holiday Mugs (a yearly goal for right-wing keyboard warriors) are taken as the shots are fired.
And while the fervor around this has been strong in the United States, we’re not immune to the problem here. Just this year in Edmonton, racists pounced on a decision by the Edmonton Downtown Business Association to move the large tree they erected in Churchill Square to a business district on Rice Howard Way, blaming Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, who was not even involved in the decision. It reminds FoxNews‘ The Christmas tree fire last year, which several network members called a hate crime.
Christmas is as annual an event as the World Junior Hockey Championship, but the way it is celebrated is constantly changing. Gerry Bowler, aka Dr. Christmaspointed out that Christmas was in the crosshairs since the beginning of Christianity. There have always been attempts to restrict, transform, minimize, resist and contain celebrations of Jesus’ birth. And yet Christmas remains. There have also always been voices claiming the centrality of Christianity in our society. And yet Christmas has been remarkably adaptable both to its followers and to those outside the faith.
A unique feature of this current controversy is its context in the general push for the privatization of religion. Our own tree debacle here in Edmonton is one example in a long line of religious strife around Christmas that shows its political dimensions.
A case in New York in 1956 had to decide whether an interdenominational nativity scene could be displayed outside a high school (Baer vs. Kolmorgen). An atheist parent in South Dakota contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who sued the school board in 1971 after their child was forced to sing Christmas carols at school (Florey vs. Sioux Falls School District). What we see in these cases and many others is how the removal of Christmas from a more dominant cultural position can be seen as a secular move to relegate everything religious festivals on the margins of society also.
Is there a way to recognize Christmas as a religious but public holiday without insisting on the cultural supremacy of Christianity? One way would be to not let the issue be as divisive as it has become. The narrative of the Christmas War reflects already entrenched political divisions. It is no exaggeration to draw disagreement over stereotypes: liberals claim there is no war; conservatives argue that it is constant.
The left doesn’t want Christianity at Christmas; the Right only wants Christianity everywhere. We have the Guardian versus Fox News; Jon Stewart against Tucker Carlson. Both sides think in terms of outright opposition rather than the opportunity for reasoned and charitable conversation. Christmas can be a brief and fleeting moment of liberation from our divisions rather than a means of entrenching them – much like the famous Christmas ceasefire on the Western Front in 1914.
But that will require a very different focus of the conversation, one that isn’t about winning an argument. It is an opportunity to have a different political dialogue, one that negotiates how to celebrate a religious holiday in a pluralistic society.
Christmas is going nowhere; but what it looks like and how it is celebrated in public will always fluctuate. Without Christmas, especially here in the Great White North, we would lose a time of celebration and togetherness in the cold and dark months of winter. Without some restrained on public displays however and what it communicates beyond holiday cheer, we would have the The Ku Klux Klan erects crosses on government property.
Christians point out that consumption has already rendered the essence of Christmas unrecognizable in its celebration. The laity continue to celebrate christmas by a large majority. So, let’s have a multi-religious and inter-political conversation, not about what we should be doing, but rather about what we are already doing to celebrate at this time of year.
From this kind of conversation, we can learn from sources we may not expect. Christians, for example, can turn to religious minorities who live their best religious lives through community service and care. When your vacation isn’t the norm, you’re really forced to reassess what the weather means to you and how you can still showcase your values.
Non-Christian religious groups always participate in the season, not in spite of their religions but through them. We see Sikh groups offering free groceries and Muslim mosques providing shelter to homeless people this time of year. If we can abandon the obsession with proving whether or not there is a war at Christmas and instead go out to participate in unknown traditions, publicly acknowledging the different religious communities of those traditions, then perhaps we can find a calmer return to the best elements of Christmas. beyond those fun battles: charity, kindness and family.
Joseph Wiebe is Associate Professor of Religion and Ecology at the University of Alberta Augustana and Acting Director of the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life.