Merry Christmas and happy holiday to all! Chrismas is a tense morning wherever the Meads gather, as we jump whenever the telephone rings. There’s an old South Carolina custom that when two friends or relations greet one another on Christmas morning, the first one who says “Christmas gift!” gets to select one of the other person’s presents. I’ve never known anybody to actually get an extra present this way, but we are nothing if note determined and we all continue to try. If you call us on Christmas Day, don’t expect anybody here to answer with “Hello?” and give you a chance to say “Christmas gift!” We are onto this trick and to protect our rich hauls of presents we always answer the phone with an aggressive “Christmas gift!” to get in first. So don’t call us unless you are ready to part with a present.
Today the Christmas blogging continues; this is the second of the thirteen posts of Christmas on our traditional Via Meadia Yule blog, first published in 2009 and updated ever since. The series started with yesterday’s post on Christmas Eve and will continue through January 6, the traditional end of the Christmas season. To give the team — and me — a bit of a holiday break, we’ll be publishing on a lighter holiday schedule through New Year’s Day, and while the pace of regular blogging will pick up after January 1, the Yule Blog will burn all the way to Twelfth Night.
When I was a kid back when mammoths ruled the earth and a first class postage stamp cost three cents, my parents used to set up a manger scene every year. During Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, Mary and Joseph would set out en route to the manger, passing through the different rooms of the house and getting a little closer each day. On Christmas Eve they got to the manger and on Christmas morning, they would be there with the baby Jesus, an ox, a donkey and the requisite shepherds and angels.
That was also the day the figures of the three wise men would set out toward the manger, retracing Mary and Joseph’s journey through the house until they joined the baby and the shepherds on January 6. By then we were all pretty sick of Christmas and were happy to pack up the manger scene, take down the Christmas tree, and get on with our lives.
The manger scene these days really is the face of Christmas for most people. The first one seems to have been assembled by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223. It was a bit more dramatic than the ones we see today; he used actual living people rather than plastic figurines. The animals were real, too, although there isn’t any direct evidence in the Biblical story that there were animals anywhere nearby.
Christmas has been a contentious holiday at least since then. St. Francis introduced the manger scene hoping that it would draw attention away from gift giving and secular celebrations to the religious meaning of the season. This does not seem to have worked very well; the last time I checked, the score at the mall seemed to be Santa Claus and Shopping ten million, St. Francis and The True Meaning of Christmas, zip.
In Anglo-American history, the Puritans gave up on trying to ‘put the Christ back in Christmas’ and just tried to get rid of Christmas completely. They banned it completely in Massachusetts and did the same thing in the old country after the English Civil War. Well into the nineteenth century, Christmas was ignored by many New England Christians; according to one report, no college in New England celebrated the Christmas holiday as late as 1847. After all, there’s no date given for Christmas in the Bible; our custom of celebrating Jesus’ birthday on December 25 has nothing to do with the scriptures, and everything to do with the way the ancient church tried to take over pagan festivals. Just as today’s radical Islamists destroy shrines and celebrations they consider un-Koranic, so many Protestants went to work demolishing anything that smacked of un-Biblical superstition and the pagan solstice-fest called Christmas was an excellent place to start.
It took a while for Christmas to make it back into respectability among the more theologically strict. Two of the classics of Christmas literature, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and The Night Before Christmas (most likely by Clement Clarke Moore), come from the early nineteenth century when Christmas was fighting for wider acceptance in the English speaking world. Ebeneezer Scrooge like many Dickens villains is a degenerate type of Puritan; he has lost any love or thought of God but his life is still cramped by the rules and restrictions his ancestors laid down to stop the frippery and folderol of popular glee. (Even the name Ebeneezer, taken from the Hebrew scriptures, points to his Puritan background; in 19th century Britain Hebrew names were usually associated with low church and evangelical dissent.)
Christmas never disappeared from the English speaking world, but once the more zealous Protestants got back with the program, the winter festival exploded to become what it is today: the most widely celebrated and distinctive holiday we have. Christmas has become a melting pot of traditions and ideas; it’s sometimes hard to know which pieces of Christmas come from the Bible (shepherds, manger, baby, parents, angels, wise men), what comes from paganism (the date, Christmas trees, mistletoe, lights, logs, presents), what comes from pious legends with little or no historical or Biblical basis (animals, the association of St. Nicholas with gifts, crowns for racially integrated wise men named Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar), what from medieval custom (manger scenes, carol singing), what comes from sentimental Victorian literature (named reindeer, flying sleigh, Santa Claus as a fat and jolly elf, Tiny Tim) and what comes from modern commercialism (dreaming of a white Christmas, Rudolf, the little drummer boy, Black Friday, the Grinch). There are parts of Christmas (like Santa Claus, Christmas trees and the whole gift-industrial complex) that non-Christians around the world have embraced with a sometimes terrifying enthusiasm; there are other parts — like fruitcakes — that everybody hates but that somehow refuse to die.
In a further wrinkle, many of America’s most beloved modern Christmas songs are written by Jews. “White Christmas” is by Irving Berlin, for example, and the author of “Rudolf, the Red Nosed Reindeer” came from a secular Jewish home in New Rochelle. The country that has everything even has a klezmer Christmas album: you can get the Klezmonauts’ “Oy to the World” at Amazon.
Christmas meanwhile reigns as both the world’s most popular and universal modern holiday and the world’s most repressed and despised one. The spirit of St. Francis is still very much with us; the pulpits of Christendom thunder every December with orations urging us to turn away from the secular festivities at the mall and spend more time and energy on the ‘true spirit of the season’. Some of the pushback is more in the spirit of Cotton Mather and John Winthrop: religious zealots and scripture-thumping clerics in much of the Islamic world today frown on both the secular and the religious celebration of the day. In Iraq in 2009, many churches were closed due both to fears of fanatical Sunni-based terrorists and a concern for awakening Shi’a hostility; in that year Christmas came very close to the day on which Shi’a Muslims commemorate the Battle of Karbala and the death of Husayn ibn Ali. In 2010 and again in 2011, rising sectarianism and religious extremism persuaded many Christians to do their celebrating quietly and at home and in this year of grace 2012, Christians in countries like (northern) Nigeria, Pakistan and Iran live in fear.
In some of the countries in the Arab speaking world, all public expression of Christian faith is banned by law, and putting up so much as a holiday wreath or a picture of Santa Claus where the public can see is strictly verboten. In Gaza, Palestinian Christians from time to time report persecution from Islamic extremists. Disturbing reports from Egypt in 2011 and 2012 tell of increased trouble for the largest remaining Christian minority in the Middle East and a reported 28 people were killed by Christmas bombings of churches in Nigeria on Christimas Eve two years ago. Church bombings have only increased since then.
There is, alas, nothing new about the association of Christmas and persecution. The original historical figure on whom Santa Claus is based was a martyr; St. Nicholas, an early Christian bishop based in what is now Turkey who lived 300 years after Jesus and whose legendary generosity and good deeds led to his metamorphosis into the modern figure of Santa Claus, was persecuted for his faith under the Roman emperor Diocletian; 2000 years after the birth of Jesus, Christians still face persecution in many countries around the world. While improving, conditions in China and Vietnam are still far from perfect; the Pope’s Christmas message for 2010 called for Chinese Catholics to show courage in the face of continuing restrictions on their freedom of religion. In South Asia, mob violence can still be a problem in both India and Pakistan. On my visits to Pakistan, local Christians have taken me quietly aside to talk about the climate of fear in which they live. In 2010, Indian Christians reported an ominous new trend toward attacks and arrests of Christians timed to coincide with major Christian holidays, including Christmas.
There are a number of organizations working to promote religious freedom for both Christians and non-Christians around the world. An end of year gift might be one nice way to celebrate the season and promote religious toleration. One in particular with whose work I am familiar seems both responsible and wise; the Institute for Global Engagement led by Chris Seiple works effectively with both religious and political figures in many countries around the world to find solutions to problems of religious intolerance.
Looking at the long history of vicious persecution of Christian dissidents and non-Christians by church and state authorities throughout Europe and the Byzantine world, Christians cannot feel smug about the record of the faith. Nevertheless, even as Christians and others suffer persecution in so much of the world today, we can take some satisfaction in seeing that in almost all of the historic lands of the Christian faith, religious minorities, Christian or not, are more free than ever to practice and proclaim their beliefs without fear of persecution.
Religious tolerance for minorities in our midst including people without religious faith, respect for the dignity of all human beings, solidarity with Christians and others wickedly persecuted for their beliefs around the world: these are three of the gifts we can bring to the manger on Christmas Day, and one somehow thinks both the baby and his mother would prefer these to yet more gold, frankincense and myrrh.
In the meantime, Christmas Gift! to all Via Meadia readers.
In the spirit of this season in which we remember that it is more blessed to give than to receive, you are now all invited to send me a gift.