Waging Peace on Christmas

December 20th, 2011

When you think about Christmas as a story that points to miracles ALL around and within you, at ALL times and for ALL people, life opens up in amazing ways. When you see ALL events and stories as part of a whole cosmos of possibility and potential, then Christmas becomes every person’s story; people of all faiths and no faith.

From this perspective, you can celebrate Christmas or not, say Merry Christmas or Happy New Year, decorate a Christmas tree or a holiday tree, and its fine either way. There is no war. There is no division. There is no need for political correctness and no need to force your Christmas celebration on anyone else.

The whole “war on Christmas” fantasy is such a distraction. What people mean when they say that there is a war on Christmas is that they feel persecuted for their language or customs or beliefs. To put it bluntly, Americans don’t know what persecution is. Let me put the so called war on Christmas into a broader perspective.

My former church in Auckland New Zealand gets itself in hot water each Christmas. They team up with a local ad agency and come up with a provocative billboard for their downtown location. Last year they displayed a billboard that showed Mary and Joseph in bed and the caption, “Poor Joseph. God was a hard act to follow.” It stirred up a local battle of its own. It was protested and torn down by vandals several times.

Last year’s billboard was a hard act to follow. This year their billboard depicted Mary, looking shocked, holding a positive pregnancy test. No caption is needed. Again, the billboard has sparked a storm and been vandalized. I’m not saying that they have initiated a war on Christmas. They are voicing an alternate interpretation of the story; one that honors science, reason and honest human responses to a genuine life crisis. It emphasizes the humanity of Mary, dealing with the shock of her situation, the way many of us have to deal with crises. It’s a valid portrayal of the Christmas story, and in my opinion an effective use of irony.

Think what you want about the Auckland Christmas billboard. My point here is that I have seen nothing as “in your face” as this billboard in America. Not only is there is no war on Christmas in America. There’s barely even a spat. You might call it a skirmish in Auckland, New Zealand, but nothing close to a war. What about Christmas in Saudi Arabia? Christmas cards are sold under the counter and only in very few stores in Saudi Arabia. Some florists discreetly sell Christmas trees, mostly artificial ones, and poinsettias. Fresh trees from Holland were recently intercepted at the airport, hacked to pieces and then sent back to Holland. And it’s not just Christianity. Any public religious displays other than Muslim practices are outlawed in Saudi Arabia. That’s getting closer to a war on Christmas.

For an American to claim that there is a war on Christmas is disingenuous, and an insult to the freedom we enjoy in this country. We should be lavishly grateful that we can celebrate Christmas however we choose to, in the privacy of our homes and churches. None of us need to take over public spaces to force our Christmas on others. The restriction on forcing your Christmas on other people is not a war, its common decency and the important separation of church and state.

America offers incredible freedom of religious expression. Let me illustrate with a story.

A few years back, under a cultural exchange program, a Texan family hosted a rabbi from Russia. It was Christmas time. The family took him to a local Chinese restaurant to celebrate a traditional Jewish Christmas. At the end of the meal, the waiter brought the check and presented each of them with a small brass Christmas tree ornament. They all laughed when someone pointed out that the ornaments were stamped “Made in India”, but the Rabbi began quietly crying. The family assumed that he was offended by the focus on Christmas but he smiled and said to them, “No. I was shedding tears of joy to be in a wonderful country in which a Buddhist gives a Jew a Christmas gift made by a Hindu.”

This is American freedom, the same freedom enjoyed in Auckland New Zealand, for people to celebrate diverse understandings of Christmas and diverse practices. The Christmas story I celebrate is a story that challenges religious intolerance, a story where astronomers, neither Christian nor Jewish, are the first to greet Mary and her baby. This Christmas story is a testimony to diversity and radical inclusion.

War on War

The Christmas story as I read it is a war on war. Most of our memories and resonance with Christmas comes through music. Consider a few Christmas songs. The carol It Came Upon a Midnight Clear was written by a UU minister in response to the Mexican American war. It is a call to live in peace. Another Unitarian, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote the carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, after getting news that his son had been critically injured in the Civil War. Do You Hear What I Hear was written in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

So many of the carols are written as a war on war, an encouragement to live a life of peace and hope in times of crisis.

To claim that there is a war on Christmas is really to say that there is a war on Christmas’s war on war, which is nonsensical. When Fox news declares war on the war on Christmas, what they are saying is that they are declaring war on the war on Christmas’s war on war. As my mother always told me, 4 wars don’t make a right.

There is NO war on Christmas, and there is no war on faith in America. There is just the valid voice of reason and diversity in a country which within a decade will be majority minority. Yes, very soon America will be a majority minority population. This will likely lead to fear and anxiety for some. For me, it’s another miracle and a reason to celebrate. It’s also a beautiful fulfillment of one valid reading of the original Christmas story- celebrating the gifts of diversity.

The meaning of Christmas for me is to instill a war like world with kindness and compassion. The Christmas spirit is to put the needs of other people before your own personal agenda. The Christmas work is to overcome intolerance, conflict and elitism in the interests of global unity. If we can reclaim this Christmas meaning, then Christmas can become a holiday for ALL people to celebrate.

Maybe the greatest Christmas story of the modern era came out of WWI.  On Christmas Eve, 1914, there was an unofficial Christmas truce. About 100,000 British and German troops ceased fighting along the Western Front. It began when German troops decorated the area around their trenches in a region in Belgium. Initially, the Germans placed candles around their trenches and set up Christmas trees. They then started singing Christmas carols. The British responded by singing carols of their own. The two sides then shouted Christmas greetings to each other. Soon, soldiers got out of the trenches into “No Man’s Land.” Small gifts were exchanged; food, tobacco, alcohol, and souvenirs. The region fell silent that night. The truce also allowed time for recently-fallen soldiers to be buried. Joint Christmas services were held, and in many places, the truce lasted through Christmas night, and into the New Year.

The Christmas truce was featured in a 2005 French film called “Joyeux Noel.” In English that means “Merry Christmas.” The tragedy is that the fighting had to start again. But it did provide a moment when peace was shown to be possible. When Christmas ends, the work of Christmas continues. Declare peace these Holidays; peace on Christmas, peace to those you disagree with, peace with diversity, peace with yourself. It all starts with the way you look at the story and the world, beginning with yourself. Peace to ALL this Christmas and ALWAYS.

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  1. It is so true – we (North Americans) have no idea what a “war” on Christmas looks like. Thanks for that reminder.
    Merry Christmas!

  2. mia says:

    i just love every part of this article. well written and full of heart. you are truly inspiring, ian!

  3. Roger Green says:

    I tweeted this piece.

  4. Heulwen Renshaw says:

    I have read part of this, and find the billboards lack respect, respect for God’s  ‘miracle’  making, respect for the chosen Mary, and the whole meaning of Christmas.  If it lacks ‘respect’, what is there left?
    And as for celebrating Christmas…isn’t that what most people are already doing..without realising ‘what’ they are celebrating? Isn’t there a danger here of accepting ‘anything goes’, (in a too- modern manner)and forget it’s about the true birth of Christ ? Is a lukewarm attitude towards a spirit that deserves the best, going to do the world any good at all?  Going with the flow only attracts more of the same, it is not going to change people’s minds into the need to be a better person. ‘Peace’, yes, by all means, but not at such a low ‘Sale’ price. ‘We’ have to show them, that’s why we were chosen.  And what better way to do it that via Facebook and Twitter. Before peace..we must first ‘respect.’

  5. Heulwen Renshaw says:

    A good piece, Ian, and I’ve read it all.  It’s worth reading, and I understand the whole story now. And it seems to me that our ‘miracle’ story of Christ, and our religion is being thrown out as an out-of-date theory. This ‘taking over’ of the Muslim faith  seems to have firstly, been accepted by our government, and thus has just snowballed out of all proportion.  Again, I come back to ‘Respect’, because unless our religion & beliefs are respected..we are lost to a faith we don’t understand.  It seems that we have fought war on war, gone through the mill, and when almost getting on top of our fears..after so many years of struggle… We find ourselves right where we started from,..only worse. Peace is the answer, you are right, but at what price?   

  6. Roger Green says:

    Church bombings in Nigeria on Dec 25 – now THAT’S a war on Christmas.  Christians in the US complain that a pine tree, born of pagan rituals,  isn’t called a Christmas tree?  They have no idea! 

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