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Keep Christ in Christmas

I’m sure that I am not the first curmudgeon to pass a “Keep Christ in Christmas” billboard and mutter, “Yes, keep him there. He’d do a lot less damage that way.”

I don’t mind exhortations against crass commercialization of a religious holiday. (Although I’m quite fond of my local model-train hobby shop whose sign declares, by virtue of lack of punctuation, “Trains Keep Christ in Christmas.”)

But in the “God please spare me from your followers” vein, it’s hard to see that particular phrase as not trailing the baggage of insistent attempts to mix up church and state, forcing one very narrow (and frankly weird) version of Christianity on a pluralistic nation. It seems to be code for, or at least a close sibling of, “Keep religion in the public schools, City Hall, and health care.” It would be a serious bummer for poor December to restrict such energies to its festivities, but it would be quite good for policy the rest of the year.

Thing is, I’m not actually that much of a curmudgeon when it comes to the winter holidays, Christmas included. I love the pagentry, the focus on hope, light bloom-ing out of darkness. I even, as a non- Christian, love many parts of the Christmas story itself. Mary’s courage, adults bowing down to an innocent babe, miracles coming from a poor and shelterless family.

So perhaps it’s really that I would prefer the phrase really be about Christ rather than about Christmas. Keep Christ as he is in Christmas. Keep ahold of the image of that little bitty baby and all the hope he represents. Hang on to that time when wise men were willing to get their robes dirty in a stable, willing to be humble before someone powerless. That time before politics and nationalism intervened. Before all the people invested in the status quo, afraid of change, or bent on their own agendas turned the story into one of struggle and betrayal. Before fate came calling. Before ages of humankind fossilized the folktale into scripture. Before we decided we knew how it ended, and what that ending meant.

It’s hard sometimes to focus on these moments of possibility. Someone I love recently accused me of not being able to stand the suspense long enough to try out something that probably won’t work, but might. It’s true. I also have trouble sometimes sitting through the parts of a movie or novel where you know you’re being set up to like a character who is going to meet a tragic end.

After the World Trade Center attacks, amidst the depression and fear, there was oddly a little bit of that kind of hope. The kind where some of us said or thought things like maybe we’d build on the sympathies of the world and take this chance to make a big push toward righting some wrongs. Maybe we’d learn something. Maybe we’d ask some deep questions about the state of the world and the dangers of religious fundamentalism. Maybe the beautiful outpouring of volunteerism and support from around the country would continue and turn to productive ends. Maybe we would call for a halt to the cycle of violence, take the high ground.

I have a Christmas tree ornament—a clay heart, painted in three broad stripes of red, white and blue, that says on the back, “From our hearts to yours. Manzanita School, Tucson, Arizona. Love, Liana.” The “Liana” is in red, each letter at wonderful child angles to the others; the rest is neat teacher printing. It was sent, with hundreds like it, to Pier 92, the locus of the huge victim response and compensation operation, where my partner was working. There isn’t even a year on it. When else would Arizona schoolchildren have sent tokens of goodwill to any and all Manhattanites?

Every year I look at this ornament, think of all the awful things that have been draped under those colors since we got it. All the ways in which that goodwill has been taken advantage of and twisted. All the ways in which the pessimistic, cynical voice that made it so hard to stay hopeful in that dark time was actually underestimating how bad it was going to get. And I almost don’t hang it up.

And then I do. Because sometimes struggles, big and small, do end with a little more justice, a little more love and kindness. Sometimes on the far side of the ugliness, hope rises from the dead, the oil lamp burns miraculously for eight days on one day’s oil, the sun returns.

But without being willing to go into that place of promise and raised hopes that will hurt when they fall, it’s awfully hard to find the inspiration for the long work in between.

So, for those who find any resonance in the story, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to keep Christ in Christmas—not for good, but for longer than we usually do. Keep the call to peace and change, the promise of it, in front of us, but leave the rest of the story hanging. How might it go differently this time? What role might we play? How long can we stand to be hopeful at a stretch?

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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