Monday, December 24, 2007

Thank God for "Happy Holidays"

Around this time of year, there's lots of talk among Christians and non-Christians alike about two little words: "Merry Christmas." The controversy, of course, is over who says it, who doesn't say it, and why.

Headlines over the past few years have accused and defended a number of corporations because of their use or disuse of the phrase. Wal-Mart, Macy's, Target, Sear's and many more have suffered the wrath of self-appointed Christmas warriors, determined to put the "Christ" back in Christmas through boycotts, news coverage, angry phone calls, and innumerable petitions.

I know that it matters little what I think amidst the nationwide media frenzy, but I would like to state and explain my position for the record: I don't want them to say, "Merry Christmas."

I am aware that we live in a culture that is not only increasingly non-Christian, but also anti-Christian. Although many of our founding mothers and fathers ascribed to some form of Christian faith, America is no longer a Christian nation. The US is a pluralist society, a reality that is exceedingly uncomfortable for Christians who are used to being in the majority and in positions of civic authority and power.

The rising pluralism has led to a rising push to accomodate the various faiths represented among us. There are both good and bad points in this accommodation, too many to spell out here. But, the important fact is that most Christians don't like it. We don't like it at all.

And so, among other things, we have the "battle for Christmas." It seems that the many proponents of the "war" to bring back Christmas view themselves as grass-roots saviors of the season. With enough phone calls and boycotts, they can pressure American corporations into not accommodating the pluralism of our society, supposedly symbolized by instructing their employees to say, "Merry Christmas," rather than the undeniably mundane, "Happy Holidays," or, even worse, "Season's Greetings."

I won't deny that I prefer to wish my fellow Americans, "Merry Christmas." And, I prefer to hear the same from others. The phrases "Happy Holidays," and "Season's Greetings," are silly and meaningless--poor replacements for a greeting that reminds our neighbors of the reason for our happy merry-making. Even so, I find the whole controversy both tremendously ironic and sadly pitiful. Allow me to explain.

The Christmas celebration is a commemoration and thanksgiving to God for the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ. According to the accounts of Jesus' birth in Matthew and Luke, Jesus was born to an unwed, teenage girl in the backwoods of Palestine. He was birthed in a dirty hovel, with a feeding trough for a bassinet and strips of rags for a delivery blanket. His first visitors were shepherds, some of the filthiest workers of the ancient world, who carried along the stench of sheep feces, dampness, and dirt everywhere they went.

Our king, the Lord of lords, was brought into the world in the humblest of ways, to the commonest of people, for the sake of the lowly. Corporations like Wal-Mart, Target, and Sears are led by powerful men and women who profit from the greed and materialism of the masses. They pay millions, maybe even billions, in order to put commercials on TV, radio, and billboards seeking to convince you that your life is meaningless without their product. They associate happiness and fulfillment with buying, having, and hoarding. Moreover, these corporations work very hard to be sure they offer the least amount of insurance and protection to the least amount of their employees. When their stock dips too low, they fire hardworking Americans and ship jobs overseas where they can get cheaper labor.

These people are not necessarily malicious themselves, but they are a part of a system working great evil among us, a conspiracy of materialism deceiving millions and leading them away from the kingdom of God that belongs to the poor. And yet, in an irony of ironies, Christians of America are demanding that these same major corporations parrot the announcement of Jesus' birth.

To me, this is both ironic and pitiful. Are we really so desperate for the American culture to acknowledge us and make us comfortable that we want corporate America heralding the arrival of the Savior? Are we really so void of fervor for true Gospel living and authentic Gospel preaching that we need Target and Wal-Mart to pick up the slack? Are we really so ignorant of the revolutionary nature of the Good News that we want to employ Caesar and his minions to prop-up the Kingdom of God in America? I hope not.

So, in the "battle for Christmas," please count me out. I would be happy to celebrate Jesus' birth with the person himself or herself after their shift. But, I don't need or want a representative of powerful corporations wishing me a "Merry Christmas." I am seeking to figure out exactly what my Savior's birth has to say to me as his follower, but I definitely don't need the aid of Macy's in discerning such truths.

I am a Christian increasingly uncomfortable in our non-Christian/anti-Christian society and that's just fine with me. I should be uncomfortable. I should feel at odds with my culture. That's the way its supposed to be. So, the next time someone wishes me, "Happy Holidays," I'm not going to scowl. I'm going to thank God that the Kingdom is coming to turn everything upside down, and that it all started in a filthy stable in the backwoods of Bethlehem, and that God doesn't need corporate America to bring it all to pass.


Tim said...

Amen, and Amen!

Tim Dahl

Scott said...

You are a wonderful writer and I am often blessed and stimulated by your writing. I agree with the thrust of this fine article. I do want to bring up one point for you to consider - calling the United States a "non-Christian/anti-Christian society."

I have lived most of my adult life in Asia, which is truly a non-Christian world. Most of the places I have lived or worked are less than 1% Christian, some less than .01% Christian. In these places Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam or Chinese Folk Religion are the majority religions, and there often are temples/mosques in every village - just like you see churches in every village and hamlet in the USA.

According to the World Christian Encyclopedia 85% of the USA is professing Christians, and 36% (about 100,000,000 people) are Great Commission Christians. The USA is the most Christian nation in the world.

Please, let us be honest when we speak about the USA. The USA is made up of a majority (a vast majority) of Christians. To call the USA a "non-Christian/anti-Christian society" is to turn the meaning of non-Christian on its head. China is a non-Christian nation (as even with the tremendous growth of Christianity there, it is only 8% Christian). Saudi Arabia is an anti-Christian nation. India is a non-Christian nation. And on and on. The USA is, statistically, a Christian nation.

While there is much Christian evangelism to do in the USA, we cannot, in any way, shape or form call the USA a non-Christian or an anti-Christian nation.

May you have a blessed Christmas.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


You make a very good point. I chose to use that language because of the way in which many in the so-called "Christian right," refer to American society. I'm sure you are familiar with the countless shrill cries of "culture wars," and "assault on Christian values."

I agree with your assessment, however. Compared to the situation in every other country of the world, American Christians are a privileged class. I imagine to those suffering under truly oppressive anti-Christian climates, our speaking of America in the same manner is an insult. You offer us an important reminder. I will do my best to refrain from using that language in the future.

Grace and peace, Scott,


traveller said...

Emily, thank you for raising this issue and provoking my thoughts. I agree with the overall thrust of your thinking. It is pretty silly to try and force a return to something that never existed in some senses and even to the extent it did, this is no longer true. There is no returning to an earlier time. We live in the world and country that exists today. As you state, it is pluralist. More than that it is a country that is largely secular and materialistic as well. (Though I believe your assessment of the siutation is too simplistic in terms of the causes and effects as it relates to employers and employees.)

In my view, "Merry Christmas" is an odd phrase itself. As followers of Jesus are we really saying having a "merry" Christ mass? Or, even if we think of it as the celebration of the day of Jesus birth are there not better ways to say it than "merry", which certainly can be interpreted as mere frivolity, or worse. I often use words like "holy", "blessed", "meaningful", "grace filled", "peaceful" or similar words when I wish to express something significant in a greeting concerning Christmas. Since it is different than any of the standard phrases it results in people either asking me what I mean or at least thinking about it.

Like you though, I think our time as followers of Jesus would be much better used by living in God's Kingdom and letting the rest of the world see what a difference that can make for this world groaning for its redemption, rather than arguing over whether some business should use any combination of words.

May your Christmas be one that is filled with the presence of the Trinity.

Joseph said...

One of the terms that has been used for some years to describe us is neither "antiChristian" nor "nonChristian", but "postChristian". The form and shape of Christian practice remain, but the inner core, the passion for the Lord, is dying, according to this view. Much more here than I want to take up right now, in this setting, but it remains true, as you have stated, that we are not as Christian as we would like to think we are.

Steve said...

Another just-right take on a big issue, well-composed as usual. As the islander said, "Chu got it, mang!"

CharlieMac said...

I remember back in the late 1940's early 50's some "Christians" being upset over the use of 'X-mas' and 'Happy Holidays' in Christmas cards.

Even as a kid I knew that "X" was the first letter of the Greek word for the English word Christ. I also knew that 'Holidays' was a contraction of 'Holy Days'. Some Southern Baptist I knew would get upset when I said that 'Christmas" was a contraction of 'Christ Mass" because that was a Catholic term.

It seems to me that some people will always find something to gripe about and try to diminish the good feelings others enjoy.

Scott said...

Joseph has brought up in his comment above that the USA is “post-Christian.” I have heard this frequently, such as in the Acts 29 Network which says that “…Christianity is a minority voice in this post-Christian culture…”

Again, as with calling the USA non-Christian, I do not see how we can call the USA post-Christian. According to the Gallop Poll, 40% of the population of the USA attends a church service weekly. Over 25 million Bibles are sold yearly (the next biggest selling book in 2007 sold 3 million) and this does not count Bibles and Bible portions that are given away.

Every presidential candidate professes to be a Christian (whether we agree with their theology, or whether a Mormon is a Christian is not the point – they all claim to be Christians) and all are actively courting Christian voters. One candidate is an ordained Southern Baptist pastor.

I constantly see Christian leaders quoted in the national media. To name just one example, Richard Cizik, the Vice President for Governmental Affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals is not only quoted regularly in the NY Times, Washington Post and other national media, he has profile pieces written about him and he has written op-ed pieces for the NY Times.

And I can go on and on and on.

To say we are living in a post-Christian USA does not stand up to the facts. And we are certainly not a minority in American culture.

American culture is materialistic. But it is not secular. It is overwhelming Christian (from the prayer that opens most of our public government meetings to the "In God we trust" on our coins.) We may not agree with the theology of many of our fellow Americans, but the majority of them profess to be Christian.

China in the 1960s was a secular nation, Albania in the 70s was a secular nation, Mongolia in the 50s to 1990 was a secular nation. The USA is not.

UnderMidnight said...

Happy Sol Invictus day!

UnderMidnight said...

On a more serious note have you read Brueggemann's "The Word That Redescribes the World?" It's a challenging counter-culture view of Christianity...or what Christianity should be in this world of the bottom line and keeping up with the Joneses.

A person to check out is Ian MacKaye, who has always been at odds with the industry and has fought it constantly. Ian is a punk who didn't found, but sort of instigated the straight-edge movement.

Criticism of our middle class opiated dream world is coming to light. But the problem after seeing the problem is what do we do? How can we disengage? It almost seems impossible. Ian is inspiring because he has fought it all his life and continues to do so up into his 40s.
That's the real test. When you get my age you get tired. Young idealism burns out and you just don't care anymore. Anyone who lasts through that time is someone I admire.

Anonymous said...

Emily, I hope you enjoyed your first holiday in your and Ron's new home. I do most certainly miss you and I know that the Lord Jesus Christ, whose birthday we are reminded of, finds you two well. After all you are blessed and highly favored. :) Lots of love, Traci :)

adam brown said...
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