Christmas has always struck me as a strange chimera of a holiday. What began in antiquity as a pagan/Roman winter solstice festival, and was then adopted by early Christendom as the celebration of the savior's birth, has today become a hybrid among holidays, where religious observance has collided with - and in some cases, been supplanted by - both crass consumerism and a more secular celebration of friends, family and gift-giving that can be seen even in countries where Christians are a tiny minority, such as China, Japan and India.
One cannot witness the modern celebration of Christmas and not get a sense of its secularization over the last several decades. Even many of our most beloved holiday films - "A Christmas Story," "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Bad Santa," "Die Hard" - pay plenty of lip service to the holiday while making no mention whatsoever of its namesake.
Well, except for an occasional "Jesus!" in the latter two, perhaps.
But here in America a certain vocal clade of Christians has had it with what they see as the increasing encroachment of secular and multicultural elements into what they feel should be a purely Christ-based celebration.
The most prevalent of these protests is against the term "Happy Holidays" which, while ostensibly meant to recognize the many holidays that occur around the end of the year including Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and, in recent years, the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha, has instead been interpreted as a cynical, overly PC attempt to dilute the religious significance of Christmas in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
The latest shot in this so-called "War on Christmas" was fired last month when the American Family Association sought a two-month boycott of the Gap for placing Christmas alongside various other holidays in a television advertisement, which urged its customers to "go Christmas, go Hanukkah, go whatever holiday you Wannakuh," and also included mentions of Kwanzaa and the winter solstice.
The commercial has drawn fierce attacks from Christians who claim the ad tries to present the different winter celebrations as interchangeable, when one should clearly hold significance over the rest.
What's funny to me, however, is that while some of these Christmas Warriors seem to want to push the non-Christian elements out of the season, they still don't seem to have a problem with celebrating its commercial aspect, at least not as long as the retailers say "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays." This makes me wonder if, in fact, these righteous defenders of the faith truly recognize the meaning behind the holiday they so stridently attempt to "protect."
I've been able to ignore this phenomenon for the most part, but this year I was introduced to a new Web site, www.standforchristmas.com, that I couldn't help but notice.
The site, founded by the non-profit Focus on the Family Action, Inc., allows users to rate major retailers on how "Christmas-friendly," or "Christmas-offensive" they are, based on such important criteria as whether they play "Jingle Bells" or "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" over the in-store Muzak system, or whether clerks are able to clearly recite "the reason for the season" when prompted by random customers in the checkout line.
The comments section for the various retailers listed on the site are, well, puzzling, I guess. I understand people have the right to shop where they want, and I'm cool with that, but praising Best Buy for customer service in one breath, then declaring you'll never shop there again until they start putting "Christmas" in their December advertisements in the next strikes me as more than a little narrow-minded.
For what it's worth, Best Buy was voted among the more "offensive" stores (77 percent offensive to just 9 percent friendly), right alongside the Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy and American Eagle Outfitters. Christmas-friendly stores include such retail giants as Lowe's, Dillards, Target and, oddly enough, Pier 1 Imports.
You wouldn't think that a store that, by its own admission, got its start catering to hippies with love beads and incense would wind up among the most Jesus-friendly retailers, but then, I guess placing a single "Christmas" at the top of your Black Friday ads goes a long way.
Here's my question. Why go out of your way to punish secular, multinational corporations for failing to recognize Jesus' significance, only to turn around and go to some other, more Christmas-friendly multinational corporation, where you'll still spend hundreds of dollars on meaningless products to celebrate the birth of a man who preached poverty and giving up all worldly possessions?
If that's really the only, true meaning of Christmas, then why aren't these noble defenders eschewing the shopping season altogether? I can't answer that, and neither can any of my friends, many of whom still love Christmas and share gifts with their loved ones every Dec. 25, even if they haven't set foot in a church in years (if ever).
I don't know. Maybe it's true that commercialism has ruined Christmas, turned it into something it was never meant to be. And maybe Christians are right to try to make it solely about Christ again.
I guess I just don't see how shopping at the Bass Pro Shop instead of Borders is supposed to do that.