As a good Pentecostal-Evangelical child I remember my horror at seeing signs for “X-mas trees,” but also my disappointment at missing Trick-or-Treat so that we could be at the church for a more wholesome candy-based celebration. My parents weren’t the kind of Evangelicals who panicked when “the world” trod heavily on Christian holidays, but I certainly knew many kids from Sunday school who were forbidden to talk about Santa or to hunt for Easter Eggs. My mother’s style was much more subtle. She simply wore a small “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” pen and did not worry about “X”ing out Christ when spelling X-mas. Among many Evangelicals there was and still is a real paranoia about having distinctive Christian practices watered-down by the surrounding culture. Watch Fox News for a few hours and see if you don’t hear the phrase “War on Christmas.” Why the paranoia and is it justified?
To the extent that a super-tiny minority of radical-secularists would like to see our society purged of religious references and content, there may be a war on Christmas, but it’s about as threatening as the movement to get us all to speak Esperanto. I think something else is going on here. Evangelicals are worried about a far subtler danger, but we don’t often do a good job of recognizing that danger or articulating a solution. What we’re actually worried about is as assimilation. And some historical perspective might help us along the way.
Living in Quebec I am intimately familiar with the fear that stems from seeing one’s distinctive culture erode. Language laws in Quebec are designed to preserve the provincial dominance of French. French-Canadians swim in a virtual sea of English speakers and are doing everything they can to avoid cultural and linguistic dilution. It is, of course, merely a rear-guard action that is only delaying the inevitable, but I appreciate the reality of the fear behind these language laws. They have something distinctive and special (Quebec may be the only place in the world where fanny-packs and mullets are still fashionable) and they want to shelter it from the ravages of time and change. In this, the French-Canadians are not unique.
When Evangelicals sense that our distinctive values and character are threatened, we do react out of fear. And so we, like so many other groups before us, generate a sense of persecution. We rally the troops around the cause and the flag and try to gin up support for the home team! I’m reminded again of my beloved New England Patriots and the almost ridiculous lengths to which their coaches will go in order to create a sense of persecution, an “us against the world” mentality among the players. It is perhaps a sad truth of human nature: we love our sisters and brothers best and most when we see ourselves as part of a group arrayed against an outside enemy. Nothing generates solidarity like an outside threat.
And thus we enter the months leading up to Advent and Christmas knowing full well what is coming. Gird your loins my Evangelical brothers (presumably my sisters need not have their loins girded) and prepare to defend our holiday. The manger is in danger! No Santa, just shepherds! Wisemen, not Snowmen! You can have my public creche when you pry it from my cold dead hands!
How unnecessary this all is. First, let’s be honest. Not only is there NOT an active war on Christmas, 99.9% of the Western world depends on Christmas, non-Christians and secularists included. The challenge is not to Christmas but rather to the exclusively Christian interpretation of the symbols of the Christmas season. And this is as it should be and always has been. The Christian liturgical calendar does not and never has represented a purely Christian view of the world. It is, instead, an ingenious exercise in layering. Christians have been extraordinarily successful at mapping our stories, symbols, rituals, and calendar onto preexisting cultural substrates. Churches are built on top of pagan holy sites. Easter is tied to the Jewish holiday of Passover. Pagan rites and dates and taken up into the Christian liturgical calendar and imbued with biblical symbolism. It is only after the fact–LONG after the fact–that some Christians, nursing a sense of persecution, look back on this history of assimilation and integration and call for a purge. But let’s be clear. Christianity worked as a missionary religion in large part because of its flexibility.
Last week I was at our farm cutting wood for the stove. The yellow and red maple leaves where spectacular. My son was collecting the brightest specimens for his collection. The Canada geese were streaming overhead honking so loudly that I could hear them over the chainsaw. The wet leaves and wood chips smelled sweet and safe. How in the world can anyone encounter this sort of seasonal tableau and not feel a kinship with the practitioners of pre-Christian nature religions? There is something so obviously profound in the changing of season, something that highlights our dependence on the rest of creation, that it must occur even (perhaps especially) to those who are not schooled in major world religions. But as soon as I had this thought, I came up short!
Can I, as an Evangelical, honor the changing seasons and express a kinship with naturalistically oriented pagans without guilt, or must I reject, entirely, their seasonal sensibilities and work to purge all vestiges of nature religion from my Christianity? Contemporary Evangelicals who condemn Kwanza, eschew Christmas trees because of their pagan origins, and generally wish to remake the complex phenomenon of Christmas in their own image; these Evangelicals might see me as a traitor. But I feel closer to my more ancient Christian predecessors who saw all around them a complex religious world that was closely tied to the natural rhythms of the deciduous forests of Europe. These late-antique Christians discovered what contemporary media types might call “a teachable moment” as they pushed Christianity northward into the European peninsula. Had they envisioned the meeting of Christianity and paganism as a clash of cultures, in which Christianity had to replace local practice–this by the way is exactly what later European colonizer and many missionaries would do as they sought to spread Christianity in the “new world”–their efforts at spreading the Gospel would likely have failed. Instead, they layered the Christian story onto that of the local traditions…and it worked!
And in many ways it still works for me.
One of the great things about embracing the Liberal-Evangelical moniker is that I no longer worry about accidentally allowing a bit of paganism to spoil my pristine Easter and Christmas celebrations. The fit is just too perfect! Easter has always been tied to Passover and both holidays work well with the vernal equinox, a time of rebirth. And since we have absolutely no idea what time of the year Jesus was born, why not work with rather than against the seasonal calendar and celebrate his birth at the winter solstice. So what if pagan religionists long ago identified this as a time of change, the shortest day of the year, but also the moment at which the course of the heavens shifts and light begins to regain the ground it lost to darkness? Doesn’t this fit with the Christmas story!
As a Liberal-Evangelical I worry less about purifying Christian practice and more about finding ways of creatively and profoundly engaging the world beyond my own Evangelical crowd. We are not part of a persecuted minority and I do not see any tangible benefit to be gained by the Kingdom of God in pretending that we are somehow uniquely under attack. So I’ll cut more wood this weekend, rake leaves, and privately celebrate the turning of the season. I’ll dress my son up for Halloween and carve pumpkins and even drink some pumpkin beers. And when Advent arrives I’ll light candles and read to him from Luke and Matthew and we’ll draw wisemen and camels, but we’ll also watch Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer a few hundred times.
In short, I’ll try to see the world less as an enemy and more as God sees it…for God so LOVED the world. I’ll try to love it and celebrate it at the same time.