A certain car magnet seems to have been slapped onto every vehicle in the church parking lot: “KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS” it reads, captioning the outline of a manger scene. Some men are handing them out. An old guy gives me a dirty look when I don’t take one. I assume he is one of the Warriors of Christmas, who claim there are godless hordes waging a battle against their right to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus.
“Happy Holidays!” I say, just to irritate him.
What I want to say to him is this: First things first. How about we put Christ back in Christmas before we try to keep him there.
Think about the story of the birth of Jesus for a minute. A young unmarried pregnant woman in her third trimester hits the road with her partner, who is not the father of the baby. This is improper. She goes into labor. This is irresponsible. The desperate man and woman are refused shelter; there is apparently no room for them at the inn, although maybe they just look poor. Certainly it is disreputable when she gives birth in a filthy stable that is only fit for animals. Then, before you know it, they take their newborn and run for their lives. They sneak into a foreign land.
Christians surely know what we call people who flee danger and violence in their homeland. They are refugees. The infant Jesus, a few moments into the narrative, is already a refugee, without money, without papers, without prospects. He is a throwaway born to a couple of throwaways who carry with them little other than their hope for a safer life. He is exactly the child whom our dear leader, of whom an astonishing number of Christians approve, believes belongs in a cage at the border. His parents are exactly the people against whose entry our dear leader’s fans, many of them Christian, chant, “BUILD THE WALL!”
If we want to keep Christ in Christmas, maybe we first need to grant Christ amnesty within our margins, instead of wielding the phrase "Merry Christmas!" like a weapon.
For most people who are not Christian, of course, "Merry Christmas" represents a fond wish for a completely secular holiday involving Santa Claus and eggnog and twinkling lights on trees. A simple Christmas greeting in our society is both innocuous and appreciated: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” and all that. Those who are Christian ideally have a different sense of the holiness of the season, but we are hardly holy when we are angry with people who do not believe what we believe. It’s pretty clear that folks who don’t share the Christian faith are not likely to be evangelized by crankiness.
We don’t keep Christ in Christmas by keeping at arm’s length those who perhaps celebrate a different religious holiday. Jesus does not say, “When I was a stranger, you yelled an insistent and belligerent 'MERRY CHRISTMAS' at me.” What Jesus does say: “When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35-40) We keep Christ in Christmas by caring for each other, by opening our arms and our homes and our wallets to those who need us, by being merry and bright to everyone we meet, regardless of our judgment of their faithfulness.
I know that, by saying “Happy Holidays!” to a Warrior of Christmas, I am being a jerk. But perhaps that friendly, more inclusive phrase is precisely the way to keep Christ in Christmas. December is a month of holidays and holy days. People in our diverse nation celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and the winter solstice and the coming of the new year and the Feast of Stephen. We are festive. We throw parties. We sing together. We give to charities. We pray for peace on earth. Our hearts expand, and we feel for a wondrous moment that it is actually possible to love our sisters and brothers. So jingle all the way. May you be home for Christmas. And happy holidays to you and yours.