Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“Christmas and Christianity”
December 21, 2015
“Maybe Christmas, the Grinch thought, doesn’t come from a store.”
How the Grinch Stole Christmas, 1957
Theodor (Dr. Seuss) Geisel (1904-1991)
Christmas is special – perhaps the most special of all holidays, at least for the world’s children, its Christians and, I would guess, millions more. In its pervasiveness, it has become ecumenical. It is as much a feeling as a season. Could the spontaneous truce that for a few moments interrupted fighting in the trenches on the Western Front in December 1914 have occurred at any time other than Christmas Eve? It is a magical time for children. The power to believe is granted to those whose faith runs deep, but is inherent in all children. To them, Santa Claus is not an abstraction; he is real. Charles Dickens, in A Christmas Carol, taught us, through the characters of Scrooge and Tiny Tim, the sin of greed and the grace of benevolence. When Theodore Roosevelt, in the interest of conservation, announced that the White House would go without a Christmas tree in 1902, he was denied by his two youngest sons, Archibald and Quentin.
Growing up in rural New Hampshire, Christmases were special. On its Eve my father would hitch ‘Judy’ to a sledge. We children would climb aboard. With dogs eagerly following, we headed through the gate leading to the ‘next field’ and the rutted road that lay beyond, into the woods. A previously located spruce or a fir would be cut down, placed aboard the sledge and returned to the house. That evening my parents would decorate it, the best part being when real candles, scattered among the branches, were lit – a bucket of water placed prudently nearby. We would then hang-up our stockings. ‘Mitzi,’ our Shetland, would come into the living room and hang-up her “shoe”. Later, we would gather around our mother, as she read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Though we knew the story by heart, we all laughed as we heard for the umpteenth time how Santa’s belly, when he laughed, “shook like a bowlful of jelly.”
Neither of my parents were religious in the traditional sense. My mother had been raised in New Haven as a Congregationalist; my father as a Unitarian in Wellesley, MA. While there was a time, in the 1950s, when my father attended church regularly, that was due to his regard for the minister, David B. Parke. Caroline and I raised our children in the Episcopal faith, the church in which my wife was baptized. When our children were young, we attended services regularly. In fact, at one point I was a member of the vestry and our children were acolytes. But as we have grown older we have become irregular communicants. Nevertheless, I take comfort in a familiarity of the liturgy and hymns. I enjoy the wisdom of our rector, revealed in his sermons. And I love the pageantry of Christmas services.
The magic of Christmas still exists for my youngest grandchildren. And even for the older ones, who are hesitant to deny the existence of Santa Claus…just in case. But there are politically-correct Scrooges and Grinches who minify the significance of Christmas by claiming that words like ‘stars’ and ‘angels,’ and displays like crèches and Christmas trees, and hymns like “Away in a Manger” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” may make non-Christians uncomfortable; so should be avoided. The implication being that Christianity is exclusive, in a world clamoring for inclusivity – a place where multiculturalism is preferred to pluralism. That attitude is wrong and in fact goes against the essence of religious freedom. We are a nation that welcomes people of all faiths – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and scores of others, including atheists or agnostics. Our Constitution (and common decency) require we respect one another’s religions and places of worship, as long as they are peaceful.
While the commercialization of Christmas is a reality, it remains a religious holiday. There are about 2.3 billion Christians in the world – the most ubiquitous religion on the planet. According to PEW Research, 71% of Americans identify as Christian. There was a time, however, when intolerance was essentially synonymous with Christianity. Consider: The Crusades – the first began in 1095 and the last in 1248; A time when Popes led armies – Pope Julius II (1443-1513), one of the last to lead an army, named himself after Julius Caesar; The Spanish Inquisition, which began in 1478 and was finally disbanded in 1834. Think of Pilgrims like William Bradford who escaped religious persecution in the early 17th Century by coming to America; Keep in mind, Puritans in New England who, later in the same century, hung Sarah Good and eighteen other women for witchcraft and ostracized the fictional Hester Prynne for adultery. But that era passed. Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Christian missionaries may have been exuberant in spreading the Gospel, but they did so peacefully. They were more likely to be killed than to kill.
One of the most profound changes in the global religious landscape has been the decline of Christianity in the region of its birth – the Middle East. By 2010, the percent of the population that was Christian had declined by two-thirds from a hundred years earlier. In the past five years, in Iraq and Syria, the number of Christians has declined by 60% to 75%. “Religious cleansing,” a euphemism for genocide, is being practiced on Christians in ISIS-controlled territories in Syria and Iraq. In our comfortable homes, keeping warm before blazing yule logs, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, it is hard to imagine (but we should not forget) that Christians are being killed – some crucified – simply for being Christian.
The word ‘Christmas’ stems from the old English Cristes Moesse. It means a celebration of the Eucharist in honor of the Messiah, or Christ – Jesus the Christ. Today we celebrate the holiday as the time of His birth, in a stable in Bethlehem. That city now has a population of 50,000 (50 times larger than 2000 years ago). Bethlehem is located five miles south of Jerusalem in Palestinian-controlled territories, land turned over to the Palestinian Authority in 1995 as part of the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement. Roughly 53% of the population is Muslim, with the bulk of the rest being Christian.
In most families, Christmas is a cherished tradition. It provides children a sense of place – something to look forward to each year. For adults, it brings back memories of childhood, of the way holidays were once celebrated. But there is nothing wrong with developing new customs or amending old ones. My children were raised differently than was I. It is likely that their children, as they marry and have children, will develop their own habits. Change can be good and is, in fact, necessary. In his essay “The Custom House,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: “Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, in the same worn-out soil.” His words speak to the pluralism of America’s society – E Pluribus Unum. It reminds us that immigrants who come to America should adapt to our values and culture. Over time, their influences will affect our culture. But it is they who must adapt. Segregated communities, whether by religion or race, divide; they do not unite.
During this season it is worth reminding ourselves that the word holiday has religious antecedents. The word is derived from the Old English, haligdaeg, meaning ‘holy day.’ In that spirit, I wish you joy, peace, goodwill and good health. Caroline and I will spend Christmas with our family – our three children, their spouses and our ten grandchildren. Whatever your religion or whatever code you live by, may it bring peace and good cheer to you and to all you encounter. The Grinch was right. Christmas does not come from the store. It comes from the heart.
Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!