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?