A number of years ago, I was standing at a Salvation Army Christmas kettle in downtown Victoria. As people passed by and dropped change in the bucket, I greeted and thanked them. Sometimes I said, “Merry Christmas,” especially if the donor said it to me first. But most of the time, I went with a universal acknowledgment like “Happy Holidays.” As my shift ended and a staff member from my ministry unit took over, a man wearing a yarmulke dropped in a $20 bill. I thanked him and wished him a “Happy Hanukkah.” He smiled and said, “Merry Christmas.”
The employee who came to relieve me seemed bewildered. I knew little about him except that he wanted to work for the Army because it was a Christian organization. As he looked at me, I sensed he was bristling about the last exchange.
“Shouldn’t we be saying ‘Merry Christmas’?” he asked. “I mean, we are Christians, after all.”
“Who was the greeting for?” I replied. He seemed confused by my question. It made sense to me. “When I wish someone a ‘Merry Christmas,’ I’m saying I hope they have a great Christmas celebration. It’s a neighbourly wish, not a creedal statement,” I told him.
“So why would I wish someone a great Christmas when I have no reason to believe they even celebrate it? Is it to antagonize them? Is it to assert the primacy of my faith? Is that what peace and goodwill toward humanity look like?”
Perhaps it wasn’t fair of me to pepper him with questions, but I wanted him to think about the message he was sending.
Over the last few years, we’ve heard a lot in the media about a supposed “war” on Christmas. The rhetoric claims that Christ is being pushed out of Christmas, and that this is part of a larger assault on our faith. We often retaliate by blitzing our social media pages with “I’m keeping Christ in Christmas” memes and warn everyone to prepare to hear “Merry Christmas,” whether they celebrate it or not.
When you think about it, this whole notion of a war against Christmas (or even our faith for that matter) is kind of silly. It’s peddled by the media and those with a political agenda and we fall for it. Why? Because it appeals to our identity as a persecuted people.
For many of us, our faith is built on the notion that to be a Christian is to be mistreated. I heard that message in Sunday school, training college and many times since then. Scripture verses, written to believers in a very different time and place, are taken out of context and applied to us. Being persecuted is seen as a validation of our faith. No wonder we want to see this devil behind every bush.
But the fact of the matter is that Christians are more likely to encounter apathy than hostility in our society. If there is such a thing as a war on Christmas, it is likely because of our own doing rather than the efforts of those indifferent toward us. We bemoan the secularization of our religious holiday, even while we participate in the rampant materialism that comes with it. We allow the deep meaning and message of Christmas to become muted by the crassness of consumerism. But Christmas is a perfect opportunity for Jesus’ subversive message of “others” to draw attention to our unhealthy self-obsession.
The Christmas story, in the language of John’s Gospel, is about light coming into our dark world. The story of the Wise Men visiting Jesus reminds us that the light is for all people, not only the Jews, but Gentiles as well. The presence of the shepherds reminds us that the gospel is especially for the poor and marginalized. Jesus’ escape from the clutches of Herod conveys the message that political systems that oppress and exploit people do not have the final say. Christmas is about the advent of a new kingdom of justice and peace on earth.
Does persecution happen to believers? Yes. Sometimes it is real and severe. But to pretend what we face in the West is equivalent to real hardship is insulting to those who truly hurt. Let’s stop the self-serving rhetoric of persecution and victimhood. Let us instead bring light into the dark corners of our world. Let’s care for the poor and suffering this month and in the days ahead. That is really keeping Christ in Christmas.
Major Juan Burry is the executive director of Rotary Hospice House in Richmond, B.C. This is his last column and we are grateful for his contributions this year.