From Liberty Street: The Universal Holiday

John Turner

I don't how old I was before I recognized that Christmas wasn't for everybody. But it wasn't until I was fully grown-up that I came to see that for many people in this country the Christmas season isn't an enjoyable event. I learned it first from Jewish friends and later from people who view all religion as a bucket of nonsense and bigotry.

But what's Christmas got to do with religion? some will ask. And I confess, I'm not sure of the answer.

Obviously it was generated by religious belief. But over the centuries it has moved more and more towards being a secular celebration of various actions, some of them in conflict with others.

If you wanted to be hard-nosed and factual, you would have to say it is, primarily an orgy of buying and selling that has now achieved dimensions beyond the imagination of those who kept Christmas a century ago.

It is also a season of increased social activity, some of it delightful and warmhearted but some quite disgusting.

It is a season of eating in a manner that if it were pursued year round nobody could possibly live to be thirty.

And along with the buying and selling there is gift-giving, some of it self-serving but some flowing from genuine generosity.

It's a mixed bag, overall, but not much of it linked clearly to the person for whom it is named, to his putative message, nor to the vast system of mythology and theology that has been pushed forward in his name, and which, if he could know anything about it now, would doubtless bewilder him.

So why do people get so charged up about it? Why can't we all, regardless of our personal religious background, enjoy the parts of it we can stand and stay away from the parts that annoy us. That, in effect, was the suggestion of Columbia University professor of religious studies Alan F. Segal, writing in the Washington Post last week. He tells us that the main symbols of Christmas are not Christian and that Christmas decorations are as American as apple pie. 

Right as Mr. Segal is in his secular analysis, I know that his approach will not be accepted, at least not for many decades to come. Christmas is simply charged with too much emotion for it to be written off as a season of merrymaking, and nothing more.

If you grew up in a Christmas-celebrating household, and lay awake in the predawn hours when you were a child, about to burst while you waited for the first glimmerings of daylight in order to have the right to charge into your parents bedroom to say we had to get up because it was Christmas morning, you know that the day has a kind of power in your memory that scarcely anything else can approach.

It is that sense of awe that fuels the anger of many people now towards those who are charged with wanting to take away Christmas. And most of that anger is about as unchristian anything could ever be.

If you give the day its power, as I think we all must, then as mature men and women we must recognize that if one did not have the experience of lying knotted in a ball of excitement, waiting to run down to the tree, he or she will feel somewhat anxious about the whole phenomenon. There is no reason to feel anxious, many of us will say. But, those of us who think of Christmas as a time of joy need to recognize the truth of the fear and extend our courtesy and good-feelings to all who can't get caught up in the Christmas frenzy. They are a minority, but they are as full American citizens as anyone who ever sat on Santa's knee as a child and believed that he would receive once-a-year delights of astounding beneficence.

The Christmas struggles are not going away any time soon. There is far too much tangled history behind them for them simply to disappear. That seems clear. But if we all approach them with good hearts and good sense, they can move us toward the spirit that Christmas ought really to foster in all of us, Christians or not.

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Harvard Square Commentary, December 25, 2006