In the interests of diversity and inclusion, society shies away from Christian manifestations of Christmas. Battles loom over nativity displays, the traditional “Merry Christmas” greeting and Christmas trees. Public schools banned carols from school concerts years ago. There is, some argue, a war on Christmas.
While some seek to eliminate anything that remotely resembles religious belief, others press to “remember the reason for the season” and to “keep Christ in Christmas.”
It would be more in the spirit of the season if both sides lightened up. A nativity display isn’t likely to spark a conversion any more than participating in a Santa Claus parade constitutes apostasy. To wish someone “Merry Christmas” is an expression of goodwill, not an attempt to proselytize. And putting up a Christmas tree isn’t some subversive plot to promote Christianity; it’s a seasonal decoration.
During the Christmas season – or should I be more politically correct and call it the Winter Holiday? – adults would do well to become more like little children. For them, there’s no conflict between the sacred and the profane, the natural and the supernatural. A baby in a manger or Santa Claus are equal sources of wonder. But in this hypersensitive culture of outrage, some adults get all twisted about the religious part of Christmas, arguing about its place in the celebration.
A person can enjoy and learn from the Christmas story without accepting Christian belief in the birth of a divine baby, just as one can believe in the spirit of generosity that Santa Claus represents without believing in a literal Santa Claus.
Because the story of the nativity is a religious one, sacred to Christians, it makes some uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean it’s time to throw the baby out with the bath water. Traditional expressions of Christmas that have informed celebrations in western culture for generations need not become anathema. The present time calls for a new way of seeing, for rediscovering some of the universal truths within a sacred story.
The nativity can be an encounter with those who are ‘other.’ In today’s parlance, the baby and his parents could be refugees. The shepherds, who in Christian thought existed on the periphery of society, could be the marginalized. The magi could be foreigners with different skin tones, religions and customs. Different yet similar, the cast of characters assembled in the stable share a longing for something more, a longing that at Christmastime frequently finds expression in commercialism.
The Christmas story speaks to shared humanity, inclusion and diversity. These are values that society rigorously promotes. Paradoxically, these same values would banish religious expression from all public places. But diversity is not elimination and inclusion is not exclusion.
Christmas celebrations for most people have little, if anything, to do with Christian belief.
Nevertheless, the Christian representation of Christmas still has something to offer. The nativity, the tree and “Merry Christmas,” along with other things like carols, have shaped the imagination and the hearts of generations past. These symbolic elements have played a significant part in making the Christmas season a time of extraordinary generosity and goodwill.
So, bah humbug to the bickering over seasons greetings, Christmas trees and nativity scenes.
As for me and my house, we’ll approach the season with the awe of a small child and marvel at the wonders that make this “the most beautiful time of the year.”
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.