The downside, on the other hand, is that almost daily I’ve received or come across some kind of email or article about putting “Christ” back in Christmas. Now, I grew up in a household where the penultimate decorating event was assembling the manger scene, which sat squarely under the center bough on the tree’s lowest tier. My brothers and I competed, sweaty hands pulling at yellowed tissue paper, to unwrap the donkey, the sheep, the humble shepherds, the exotic wise men, the baby Jesus, and — my favorite — the Angel Gabriel, who carried a trumpet and wore a sash, beauty-pageant-style, to announce the birth of our Lord from a perch atop the stable’s eaves.
What with six kids, the tree was also surrounded with a mountain of presents. Santa scattered them in pleasingly random drifts influenced, I think, by a Norman Rockwell aesthetic; we arose at 6 a.m., the better to sort them by provenance before rousing our mysteriously tired parents who, without fail and despite our whiny footdragging, would insist that we go to church (and eat some of my mom’s special Christmas coffee cake) before we opened a single gift.
In later years, we managed to wear my folks down enough that we often attended Christmas Eve mass so that unwrapping could commence as soon as the adults had a stiff cup of coffee in hand and film in the camera. But never, ever amid all the ripped paper, Barbie dolls, Star Wars models, and tangled tinsel did it occur to us that Christmas wasn’t about the birth of Christ. If it had, it would have been my parents’ fault. They were the adults in the household, and, not being averse to spankings or house arrest, were firmly in charge. So, whenever I get one of these emails or read an editorial commanding or pleading that we return Christmas to “Christ” I think one of two things:
A: Religion being a personal matter as far as the Constitution is concerned, you can make Christmas about whatever you want in your own home and house of worship. If the wiccans, for instance, want to celebrate the much older pagan origins of the December holidays, including Saturnalia and Winter Solstice (shopping is a pretty appropriate way to honor a festival that celebrated the turn from the shortest days of winter to the soon-to-come lengthening days of spring, when survival was easier thanks to the earth’s bounty), let them be.
B: Nothing succeeds like excess, as Oscar Wilde once wrote. Judging by the ubiquitous decorations that now go up before the jack-o-lanterns’ teeth even have time to curl in with mold, and by the gross receipts, Christmas is one of the world’s greatest PR successes: It benefits from almost universal buy-in in one of the globe’s most diverse societies. The price of buy-in, of course, is loss of control. The more people participate, the more voices that shape the holidays’ meaning. Christmas shopping has become a crucial part of our consumer economy, and I’m sorry Bill O’Reilly, but crucifix necklaces, framed “Footprints” lithographs, and Tim LaHaye novels can’t carry the season alone.
As much as the Fundamentalist revisionists might wish it so, America never was nor is an exclusively Christian nation. And the winter-holiday season has never belonged soley to the Christian savior — a fact obscured by 2,000 years of Catholic and Christian-dominated politics in the Western hemisphere. The beauty of America is that if you want Christ in Christmas, no one is going to stop you — and if you can’t get it done, you’ve no one else to blame. The corollary: You can’t make anyone else have it your way — and it’s not your responsibility to do so. (A p.s. to you enterprising evangelical types: It’s too late to trademark “Christmas.”)
Now, about those holiday decorations: The Christmas tree, with its non-denominational pagan origins, is the perfect tribute to the warmth and cheer we spread with presents in our darkest winter days, but in these environmentally conscious times, a wreath or garland is even better. I was in New York last year over the holidays, and I noticed that the low lights in almost every bar glowed with the warmth of evergreen, ornaments, Hanukkah menorahs, and even the occasional Kwanzaa Kinara. As we warmed our cold toes over scotch in this new promised land that our founding fathers promised to everyone, I wasn’t worried about putting Christ back in Christ-mas, but about putting the Constitution back in the United States and a chicken in every pot.