Putting the “holy” back in the holiday season

11/10/15

Batten down the hatches, gird your loins, and check your credit score: the opening salvo in the annual stress relay we call “the holiday season” has been fired.  The issue?  Starbuck’s, the apparent arbiter of holiday good will, has opted to go with a (horrors!) plain red holiday cup design instead of a more “traditional Christmas” look.  Call the elves; Christmas is cancelled.  I would desperately like to say I am being satirical when suggesting that the chosen motif of a Starbuck beverage cup is of any importance to those who practice traditions related to the holiday many of us call “Christmas,” but, sadly, I’m not.

The situation is this: self-described, “former pastor and American evangelist, internet and social media personality”[1] Joshua Feuerstein has taken it upon himself to speak for the country’s millions of Christians by telling Starbuck’s that the cups constitute an attempt to “take Christ out of Christmas.”  I don’t want to be simplistic, but Feuerstein’s antics have no relationship to the form of Christianity which I practice.  The way in which I understand my religion – recently rebranded by Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in an effort to get back to basics as “the Jesus Movement” – is about loving your neighbor.  And as far as I can figure out, my neighbors would love it if I got them Starbuck’s gift certificates, regardless of the color of the cups.

The truth is that the holiday season represented in modern American culture has little to do with the traditional idea of a holding a mass venerating a belief in Jesus as the Christ.  While traditions like gift-giving, Christmas trees, and Santa Claus are vaguely based on Christian notions, other customs – like Christmas snow, Christmas parties, and Rankin-Bass television specials, for example – are purely modern inventions.  The hybrid Christmas-holiday season we currently “celebrate” is instead the result of a natural cultural evolution in which non-Christians have adapted to a national-majority custom which was foisted upon them.  If you are among the millions of non-Christian Americans born in the twentieth century, you probably grew up feeling isolated during what was then called “Christmas season.”  For many people it was simply a matter of survival to develop ways in which to function within this majority-culture phenomenon while remaining faithful to their own beliefs.  Thus, Chanukah became for my Jewish friends a more significant holiday than religious tradition demanded, while pioneering African-Americans created Kwanza as a way to celebrate their heritage, turning the “Christmas season,” in “the holidays.”  Unfortunately, however, the true foundation of the “season” that bracketed these celebrations (as well as the singularly nationalistic festivity of Thanksgiving) is consumerism, that most universal of American values.  And anyone who was in any kind of mainline Christian church last Sunday and (once again) heard Jesus’s negative opinion of income inequity knows that that is definitely not a Christian value.

Feuerstein is one man – a man who courts controversy- and does not speak for the millions of Christians in this country.  The fact that anyone (including me) feels a need to respond to him at all is more a symptom of how twenty-first century communications work than it is of true religious conflict (not that there’s not plenty of that to go around).  But it is also symptomatic of something author Diana Butler Bass calls, “Big C Christianity.”[2]  This is a popularized version of Christian history characterized by an “us” versus “them” mentality which portrays Christianity as the God-approved religion which has struggled throughout time to overcome those who would oppose it.  Bass suggests that not only is this version of Christianity divisive, but is also largely inaccurate and frighteningly incomplete.  In its American version, “Big C” Christianity is integrally connected to patriotic ideals like democracy and freedom.  But for those who have been persecuted in the name of the Christian church, as well as those who have simply born witness to the manipulative political use to which this mythology has been put, this is idea is patently ridiculous.  The majority of mainline Christian churches (including my own) have demonstrated a significant lack of love for their neighbors related to a vast majority of American social justice and political issues including slavery and LGBTQ rights.  Calling out “Merry Christmas” to people who feel oppressed by Christian churches will not only fail to heal these wounds, but it serves only to salt them.  In other words, making the demand that the word “Christ” be used in relationship to what is only peripherally the “Christmas” season, is the exact opposite of demonstrating the true Christian ethos of loving one’s neighbor.

Bass has argued that western Christianity needs to understand its history in order to function authentically in today’s society.  Rather than distancing ourselves from a sullied past, we should learn from it.  The desire to cling to a Christian-centered American cultural idea of Christmas is both outmoded and intolerant.

I am not fond of the way in which this country’s “holiday season” has turned into a primarily commercial venture, but I am also strongly opposed to efforts to “re-religionize” it.  In truth, I would be happier if our holiday season focused on efforts toward group reconciliation, civil discourse, and income redistribution in favor of those who have less.  Those values are consistent with those of Jesus and his movement.  But I don’t believe that “putting the Christ back in Christmas” is consistent with such desires.  Reaching those goals involves open dialogue between individuals with different understandings of the world.  It involves thoughtful (and, for those of us who pray, prayerful) consideration of what it really means to be an ethical person in American society today.  It involves loving one’s neighbor.

Bass has suggested understanding Christian history through a different lens – a truthful lens that acknowledges the evils wrought in the name of religion as well as the vast amounts of good done by those who follow Jesus.  She calls it “Great Commandment Christianity,” based on Jesus’s answer to the question of what is the greatest commandment: “Love your God and love your neighbor as yourself.”[3]  It seems to me that the time of year touted as “the holidays” – whatever that means for each of us – is a good time to attempt to practice “Great Commandment living” – by putting the “holy sowing” back into the “holiday season” by planting love and by loving each other more than shopping, more than decorating, even more than coffee.

[1]“About Josh” blog. http://www.joshuafeuerstein.com/about-josh/4585043155.

[2]Diana Butler Bass, (2009), A People’s History of Christianity: the Other Side of the Story, (New York: Harper Collins.

[3]Diana Butler Bass, (2009), A People’s History of Christianity: the Other Side of the Story, (New York: Harper Collins.

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