Having a fight in your town about that pesky nativity scene in the park? The season to be jolly turns out to have some dissenters, who would rather be litigious. Some are unhappy with Christ intruding into the celebration of Christmas. If you detect an irony in that, you might be on to something.
Being trained as an historian, I always want to jump back several centuries to get a running start at a current problem. In 1850, the Swedish priest Gustaf Unonius (the first graduate of Nashotah House) visited Philadelphia on Christmas noting, with shock, “this day was used as any other workday….In factories and shops there was clattering and hammering as usual, all the stores were open, and to my regret I found many members of our own church [Gloria Dei, ‘Old Swedes,’ by then an Episcopal church] were devoting the day almost exclusively to business and other worldly activities.” The American Protestant tradition had no church year. They met on Sundays to observe the Sabbath. Episcopal, Roman Catholic and Lutheran parishes had a Christmas Eve celebration after work, but they were in the minority and unable to convince the majority to take the day off.
Thus, it can be asked whose fault it is that Christmas in America is so detached from its obvious Christian origins. The dour Protestant majority fought the celebration of Christmas. The enticement, not of piety, but of retail profit finally overcame the opposition, spreading its capitalist joy, conquering the calendar all the way back to Thanksgiving and beyond, encouraging stories about Santa Claus and giving purchased gifts. “Putting Christ back into Christmas” rings hollow among people from traditions which never honored him with the Nativity celebration in the first place.
Now the question becomes the same as when Christmas first made it onto the Christian calendar. As the known world became universally Christian in the Constantinian era (4th century), the pagan celebration of the winter solstice flew in the face of the new order. Superimposing the Nativity observance on the winter solstice “baptized” the celebration, giving it Christian content while retaining the mutual theme of light. Since the actual birthday of Jesus is unknown, placing it on December 25 was an ingenious solution. Modern pagans have observed with glee that the contemporary Christmas is simply reverting to its roots.
Should we simply acknowledge that Christmas in America was historically not celebrated as a Christian holiday, bizarre as that may sound, and give it back to the pagans? We could retreat inside the church to appropriately celebrate the Christ Child. There is not much overlap. For the world around us, Christmas begins in November and goes until everyone collapses at the end of Christmas Day. Anything past that is just procrastination in removing the decorations. During this time, Christians observe Advent, a season of introspection and quiet preparation. On Christmas Eve, we begin our great celebration, lasting the twelve days until Epiphany. The pagan/retail festival and the Christian one overlap only during the 24 hours from Christmas Eve to the end of Christmas Day.
It is tempting to just let the pagans have the holiday back. Since it is an old tradition to give gifts during the twelve days of Christmas, it even has the advantage of retail bargains in the sales after Christmas Day. We could retreat from the “secular” festival and hold a “religious” event, free of the hoopla.
But it is not an option to do so because Christ has come, as the agent of the sacrificial love of God, to save creation, all of it. The earth is the Lord’s (Psalm 24) Large portions of it cannot be ceded to the forces of ill-instructed mass confusion. We are the stewards of this planet and we are expected to manage it, all of it, according to the Creator/ Owners will and to make that known.
This brings us back to the park. If all the earth is the Lord’s, then ipso fatso (as Archie Bunker used to say), the park is also the Lord’s, since it is part of the earth. The earth and its inhabitants, especially the management species called humans, are in a heap of trouble due to our mismanagement of said earth. The Nativity is the first step in solving the crisis and is therefore indispensable. To forbid the display of its manifestation is a massive censorship, robbing the population of important information regarding the current and future meaning of their lives.
Nevertheless, some in our society try to separate Nativity from Christmas, making a distinction between cultural and religious. This proposes an artificial Christmas, detached from the Christ Mass, observing a cultural and retail holiday without explaining the source. Many places already try this by “Christmas” carols without reference to the event, only to snow, Santa Claus, relatives and reindeer. Some leave it at “happy holidays” or “greetings of the season,” meaningless empty sentiments.
The hard fact is that if all the earth is the Lord’s, he is the Lord of culture as much as religion. Christianity is not so much a religion as a way of life based on a personal relationship with our Lord. It does not have an automatic “off” switch when leaving church. Our society tries to separate secular, including cultural, from religious. But it is an artificial divide which the Christian cannot accept. Our Lord is Lord of our whole life, 24/7 and that of our nation and society.
So the nativity scene belongs in the Lord’s park. It may be offensive to those who reject the Lord. I understand that, for there is much in our public spaces and public actions which I find objectionable as a Christian. Nevertheless, St. Paul and others teach that Christians need to endure the plurality to live in peace with their neighbors in a non-Christian society. In return, we hope others will live with the expressions of our Faith.
A few years ago, a Jewish rabbi suggested that Jews make a mistake to protest Christian expressions like nativity scenes in public places. He noted that people of all religions would do better to support any expression of faith because secularism is the overwhelming common enemy. A case can be made for this on constitutional grounds as well. While this is a big subject needing a separate post and more, suffice it to note here that the Founding Fathers did not mandate secularism. Rather, they simply proscribed an Established Church. Some subsequent interpretations have gone in the direction of having an official atheism or at least agnosticism, in public space, but that is not the last word. The Fathers were not requiring freedom from religion, but rather freedom of religion. This concept both forbids a government-imposed religion and equally prohibits restraining any particular citizen’s peaceful expression of his or her own religion or lack thereof.
For now, we must leave it there with this thought; if people would only relax, maybe we could make this work. God operates by love, not force. No one can force someone else to love God or the nativity scene. If your neighbor wants the park to have a Santa Claus, a bunch of reindeer, a decorated tree, lights for Hanukkah, or a sign saying “Bah!Humbug,” let him. But don’t tell me you can separate a “secular” cultural Christmas from the Christ Mass, because those things don’t unglue. The nativity scene needs to stay.