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Merry Christmas

December 24, 2008

war-on-christmas1The War on Christmas

Bill O’Reilly is an idiot. Nevertheless, I’ll try to take seriously, just for the moment, the idea that there is a “War on Christmas.”

I say “Happy Holidays,” but I like to think that I’m not attacking Christians when I do so. I say it simply because I have friends and colleagues who are Jewish—and I think most people would agree that this is reasonable. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I also like to say “Happy Holidays” because there is a part of me that secretly feels like I’m flipping off O’Reilly in my mind.)

If saying “Happy Holidays” is an attack on Christmas and Christianity, as O’Reilly suggests, then it would follow that saying “Merry Christmas” is an attack on Hanukkah and Judaism. I’m pretty sure both of these qualify as non-sequiturs.

However, I won’t totally dismiss what O’Reilly says; there’s something to it. Discourse and rhetoric really  matter. It matters what words we choose to say when speaking. While choosing to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is not an attack on Christianity, it is certainly a rhetorical shift that normalizes a sort of pluralism rather than Christian privilege.

Just as there is male privilege and white privilege in our culture, there is also Christian privilege. For a long time, Christianity has had an unquestioned hegemonic position in American culture, and it is starting to lose its grip on that hegemony. Those in dominant positions usually feel their displacement as an attack, but they’re wrong. Being displaced from the top of the hill isn’t the same thing as an “attack,” but it is something. I, for one, welcome the displacement of Christianity from its dominant cultural position—not everyone is Christian, not everyone should be Christian, and I’m in favor of challenging unearned Christian privilege when I can.

ola20865Keeping Christ in Christmas

In addition to the “War on Christmas” crowd, there is also the group of conservative Christians who want to “Keep Christ in Christmas.” They apparently oppose 1) the commercialization of Christmas, 2) the use of “Xmas” in place of “Christmas,” and 3) the emphasis on Santa rather than Jesus.

On #1—For obvious reasons, I have no problem with criticisms of commercialization.

fig-2-monogram-chi-ro-vaticanOn #2—Those who say that the “X” removes “Christ” probably don’t know their Christian history. The early sign for Christianity was the chi-ro, which featured a big “X.” Chi and ro are what they sound like: the first two letters in the word “Christ” in Greek. So the “X” does keep the Christ in “Xmas.”

To be fair, few people know this today, so putting the “X” in there probably—for most people—does not call to mind the chi-ro.

On #3—Here’s where the idiocy kicks in. Usually they make some sort of essentialist claim to the effect that Jesus is somehow part of the essence of Christmas. The problem with this, of course, is that all religious traditions and practices are syncretic—there is no essence to Christmas.

It turns out that the celebration of Jesus’ birth on the 25th of December resulted from Christians taking over the celebration of the birth of Mithras, which apparently took place on the winter solstice. That is, Christians appropriated this pagan celebration and added Jesus to it. So, if we’re going to go back to the “essence,” then we’ll need to go back not to Jesus but to Mithras. As one satirical Facebook group puts it, “Keep Mithras in Christmas“:

“People have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas. Long before toys and consumerism, long before tinsel and lights, long before Santa and his reindeer, and long before Yahweh and his illegitimate son, Jesus, there was the Persian/Roman god Mithra(s): born on December 25, the winter solstice, and associated with the worship of the sun. People have been talking about the ‘War on Christmas.’ What they should have been talking about is the ‘War on Mithras!’ Don’t let them ruin the true meaning of Christmas! Don’t let them forget Mithras.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Cherenow permalink
    December 24, 2008 11:05 pm

    Words, words, words. So many words and so little time. To me the gist of it all is that American society is becoming an increasingly neurotic, PC-obsessed, narcissistic and self-aggrandizing culture that has the time to waste on making Christmas a political concept instead of a mere holiday. There are plenty of multi-cultural and even non-Christian societies (Japan is one) on the planet where Christmas is celebrated without the big argument with which it is endured here. Time to get priorities straight and move on.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 25, 2008 11:16 am

    Thanks for your comment Cherenow. I agree that too much is made of this sort of stuff–and I’m guilty of contributing to it by commenting.

    But I don’t think that it is “just words.” The old adage, “a rose by any other name smells just as sweet,” isn’t really true. No one would buy them if we called them “turd blossoms.” Words matter!

  3. Cherenow permalink
    December 25, 2008 2:52 pm

    At least there’s a debate. Before the internet there wasn’t much of one. I guess to be a healthy society we need to talk about everything….that is, if we’re really going to have a democracy, which can only exist with the free exchange of ideas.

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