Merry, well, you know

Nativity scene with Christmas tree backdrop. Photograph by Jeff Weese

Nativity scene with Christmas tree backdrop. Photograph by Jeff Weese

We hear a lot at this time of year about putting the Christ back in Christmas – or, more recently, putting the Christmas back in Christmas. Indeed, one of President Donald J. Trump’s campaign promises was that we would say “Merry Christmas” again – as if we ever stopped.

This used to be a religious campaign against the commercialization of the season. With the, um, advent of Trump, it has become less about the materialism of the season – it’s hard to believe that he and his administration object to anything that makes money – and more about reclaiming a Christian identity that, they think, has been co-opted by multiculturalism and political correctness. It is factionalism versus globalism and, inevitably, us versus them, whoever they are.

And you have to wonder: Why? Why is it a big deal to say “Happy Holidays” as a general seasonal greeting, especially when you don’t know if you’re encountering kindly Bob Cratchit or pre-ghostly visitors Scrooge?

“Keep Christmas in your way and let me keep it in mine,” a grumpy Scrooge admonishes his celebratory nephew, Fred, in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

I hate to say that the season’s most lovable miser has a point, but he does. For those who have lost loved ones, particularly at this time of year, Christmas is a difficult holiday, with its expectations of picture-perfect family gatherings. Some have no one to hand them so much as a card, a warm plate of food or a real gift – something small but tailor-made that says “You matter as you.” Sometimes even the gifts we charitable types hand out through church organizations are just a reminder of the dispossessed’s lowly status. I mean, does anyone want a box of diapers as a present?

Then there are those of other faiths who often feel left out and uncomfortable at this time of year – or those of no religious faith who are just irritated about celebrating the birth of some fictional prophet who died on a cross with endless mall renditions of “Rudolph, the Red-Nose Reindeer” (Christopher Hitchens, rest in peace).

Well, Jesus isn’t a fiction. Whether or not you believe in his divinity, there really was an historical Jesus, who preached a kingdom of God here on earth – an inclusive kingdom. Whether or not he was born on Dec. 25 is anyone’s guess. The date follows the winter solstice and the lengthening of days, hence Jesus as the bringer of light (St. Augustine). Christmas’ emphasis on light, greenery and revelry would also seem to have taken a cue from the Saturnalia, an ancient Roman agricultural festival that occurred around this time. (Given how the early Christians co-opted Roman traditions to drive conversion in one of the greatest PR campaigns in the history of the world, it’s hard to see how they could pass on party time.)

Still, Christmas was not a central feast in the early Church. The Epiphany – or the manifestation of Jesus’ divinity to the Magi and, thus, the Gentiles – was far more important in the Middle Ages. Later, the Puritans thought Christmas a mere excuse for drunken decadence. (Were they thinking of Charlemagne, who was crowned on Christmas Day in 800 with a wee too much revelry?)

Fortunately for all of us, Christmas made a comeback and it really took off in the 19th century, thanks to Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and Queen Victoria’s beloved German prince consort, Albert, who introduced England (and, by extension, America) to many of the traditions we love, like the Christmas tree.

But none of this has anything to do with a Jewish rabbi who preached a gospel of compassion and forgiveness two millennia ago. Indeed, the greatest Christmas I ever had – in terms of feasting, decorations (Christmas trees studded with stargazer lilies), carols and “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” on everyone’s lips was five years ago in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country on earth.

Prior to my arrival, there had been a debate over whether residents should say “Merry Christmas.” The president then, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, had attended a secular Christmas party and said we should respect all religions. After that, you couldn’t escape Christmas – in greetings, in mall exhortations to “Come celebrate a Newyork (sic) Christmas” (via a lifesize gingerbread house), in songs like “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” blaring in Bali and, most poignantly, the lone figure of a slight man in a Santa suit ringing a bell at the airport.

Was any of this less than sincere? Of course not. But it was also about making the rupiah (the Indonesian currency).

And there’s nothing wrong with that. If James Watson – one of the co-discoverers of DNA and an avowed atheist – wanted to end our interview to rush off and buy his wife a Christmas gift, as he did many years ago, well, I found that ironically amusing but certainly not hypocritical.

It’s time once and for all to bury this issue and acknowledge that there are two Christmases – the religious feast Christians celebrate and the secular holiday that gives everyone else a respite from the dark, mean season. Should my fellow Christians object, I suggest they reacquaint themselves with the central feast of Christianity – and my favorite holiday – Easter. Resurrection. Transcendence. Spring. Pastel colors. Chocolate. Perfect.

Rather than putting the Christmas or even the Christ back in Christmas, we should try putting the compassion back in Christmas and then, as Scrooge discovered, try to live that every day.

Oh, and Merry Christmas.