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Who's the Grinch? Christians Usually the Aggressors in 'Christmas Wars'

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The 2010 skirmishes in the "Christmas wars" hammer down a historical fact: Where there have been battles over the long millennia, the aggressors have most often been Christians trying to impose religious order on a festival that has never been as tame or faith-flavored as they would like.

Consider the high dudgeon expressed by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) at the possibility of the legislature continuing to work past mid-December: "It is impossible to do all of the things that the majority leader laid out without doing -- frankly, without disrespecting the institution and without disrespecting one of the two holiest of holidays for Christians and the families of all of the Senate, not just the senators themselves but all of the staff."

Leave aside the fact that many of us 'murkens get no more than a day or two off for the holiday. The attitude that Christmas should be an extended, pious, work-free celebration would likely have been as alien as "Seinfeld's" Festivus to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the nation's founders.

Grinch, ChristmasBack in the 1700s, popular Christmas traditions had been carried over from Europe: A mash-up of Mardi Gras and Halloween, featuring feasting, drinking, cross-dressing and sex. The Puritans even tried to outlaw the holiday for a while. The "reason for the season" was the same as it had been for the centuries before the birth of Christianity: astronomy -- the long, dark nights near the winter solstice (combined with the rhythm of agriculture, with farmers mostly at idle between harvest and sowing). It was a perfect recipe for serious partying.

About 1,700 years ago, church leaders tried to co-opt the carnival (known in some parts of Europe as Saturnalia) by tying it to a celebration of the birth of Jesus. But the partying mostly continued.

It wasn't until the 1800s, midwifed by the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" and Charles Dickens' book "A Christmas Carol," that the modern American version of Christmas took form. And even that owed more to secular ideas about Santa Claus and charity than it did to conservative Christian theology.

I'm getting my details about Christmas past, by the way, from the wonderful book "The Battle for Christmas," by Stephen Nissenbaum, emeritus history professor at the University of Massachusetts. It's a scholarly work, published in 1995, with abundant detail and lots of footnotes. It's also written in a way that's not off-putting to lay readers. Here's his grand summation:

From the beginning, the Church's hold on Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous. There were always people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority. It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.

Which has never stopped Christians of a certain mind-set from trying. And that leads to my second skirmish from this year: You may have read David Gibson's account about the church in Dallas that created a website devoted to identifying businesses that were Christmas-y enough (recognized as nice) and not sufficiently deferential to the holiday (tagged as naughty). The measure of religious sufficiency appears to be whether the clerks or signage say "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays."

The high irony is the mascot that First Baptist Church of Dallas chose for its Christmas test: The Grinch, the starring character in the Dr. Seuss book "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." The church website is called Grinch Alert.

When I heard about the site, I wondered if anybody at the church had actually read the book or even seen the iconic cartoon that Theodore ("Dr. Seuss") Geisel created in collaboration with the great animator Chuck Jones. (Of the more recent live-action movie I will not willingly speak.) A less suitable symbol of mercantile Christian religiosity than the Grinch cannot be imagined.

The story mentions Christmas, it's true. But there are no prayers, no services, no mention of Jesus. You surely know the outline of the tale (and you can read it online in many places; here's one link): The Grinch hates Christmas, particularly the noise and songs of Whoville's holiday celebration. He decides to prevent Christmas by stealing the Whos' Christmas stuff.

But when the Whos nonetheless start to sing, the Grinch has his, um, epiphany:
And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?
"It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
"It came without packages, boxes or bags!"
And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.
"Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more!"

And nobody in the poem, in the home or in a store, ever says, "Merry Christmas."

The Grinch's lack of explicit religion is common to almost all of the most broadly accepted cultural icons of the American Christmas season:

"A Christmas Carol," from the original book to all of the various films and plays (including one in Klingon), is long on works, short on faith. The focus is on ghosts and magical spirits, not angels or the infant Jesus. And Dickens had little use for the specifics of Christian ritual. At one point in the book, he even takes a whack at Christians who wanted pubs to close on Sundays. The Spirit of Christmas Present scoffs at the notion that the idea would find favor in Heaven:

"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us."

Run through some of the more modern cultural touchstones, those shows that generations of Americans watch year after year:

"It's a Wonderful Life" has a Christmas-time setting but the story is about faith in community. George Bailey is redeemed by being shown the value of his life to his neighbors.

"Miracle on 34th Street" is a world where redemption and transformation are achieved through faith in, well, Santa Claus. "Christmas is not a day," Kris Kringle explains. "It's a state of mind."

The stop-action "Here Comes Santa Claus" (by the same folks who did the equally non-religious "Rudolph") pushes Christianity totally out of the frame: Santa was a foundling adopted by a toymaking family of elves named Kringle who all wore bushy beards and red suits with white trim. He learned to ho-ho-ho from seals. And he started sneaking down chimneys because a local mayor outlawed the delivery of toys through the front door. And so on.

Among popular holiday fare, only Tim Burton's "Nightmare Before Christmas" is as weirdly decoupled from religion. Christmas in that film, like all the other holidays, exists in a sort of parallel dimension.

The one shining exception to the parade of popular semi-secular Xmas specials is "A Charlie Brown Christmas." The show is true to the conservative Christian faith of 'Peanuts" creator Charles Schultz.

Within the tale of the eternal outcast, Charlie Brown, and his search for the true meaning of Christmas, is an actual passage from a Gospel. In the middle of a school pageant all but captured by materialism, Linus takes the stage and recites much of the second chapter of Luke, announcing the birth of Jesus.

And guess what? Like the best of the non-religious Christmas specials, "Charlie Brown" was a hit from the get-go. Proving, perhaps, that the majority of Americans are perfectly able to live with the idea that Christmas in this country can be understood in many ways.

When Geisel and Jones created the 1966 cartoon version of "Grinch," they came up with some new visuals (they turned the Grinch green, for one thing) and Geisel tweaked some of the text. But they never increased the religion quotient of the tale. Geisel wrote the lyrics to the songs, including what could have been turned into a Christian hymn sung by the Whos. But here's what he came up with:

Fahoo forays, dahoo dorays
Welcome Christmas! Come this way
Fahoo forays, dahoo dorays
Welcome Christmas, Christmas Day

Welcome, welcome, fahoo ramus
Welcome, welcome, dahoo damus
Christmas Day is in our grasp
So long as we have hands to clasp.

To which I can only add: Merry Christmas.
Filed Under: Religion, Culture

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Although I am what most would consider "religious" I think that the whole thing is nothing more than a "Christian protection racket" as Jeff Dunn wrote on The Internet Monk blog. I can't imagine Jesus participating in this sort of score-keeping exercise. I can picture the pharisees working it, though. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

December 25 2010 at 7:03 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

When people talk about the so-called, "War on Christmas", which Christmas do they mean? ...The Day of Christ's birth or the secular, commercialized Christmas filled with Santa, Rudolph, Christmas trees, Frosty the snowman, and wretched materialism? If you get offended because a merchant hasn't wished you a Merry Christmas, you are trully a lost soul.

December 24 2010 at 3:43 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

If in passing, I wish someone a Merry Christmas, I certainly would not be offended if that person responded with a "Happy Hannakuh" or any other holiday greeting that fit their own religious affiliation. Not in the least.

December 24 2010 at 1:46 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

If you haven't viewed the AOL 500 top photos of 2010, you should do so. You will find numerous countries in all corners of the globe, celebrating the birth of Christ. Only in America, whose roots were firmly planted in the Christian faith, are destructive forces so actively intent on removing/diminishing the teachings and practices and expression of beliefs that are profoundly necessary to maintaining a decent and stable society.

December 24 2010 at 1:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Welcome Mr. Robb

Whatever the reason you still can't escape the fact the all religion, including Chritianity, is built upon layers and layers of myth and so it goes that Xmas is layered upon pagan celebration. So, have a very Merry-Xmas-winter-solstice-whatever-holiday! There! That about covers it!

December 23 2010 at 3:09 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

A friend of mine worked for a company that was based in Ohio with operations around the world. They were told to wish people Happy Holidays and avoid mentioning Christmas.

Another friend worked for a company based in Arkansas. Despite also have offices in Asia and Europe, the good ole boys that ran the company were all evangelical Christians, so they were into wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.

Now, for a surprise. Another friend works in the financial service sector, and the company is heaquartered in New York. They had a Christmas party, and all of the memos from HQ wish people a Merry Christmas. The company also has offices in the Middle East and India, as well as Europe, Asia, and Africa. You would think that a company with that kind of diversity would be the most likely to go down the political correctness route.

December 23 2010 at 2:35 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Kent's comment

The ban on saying Merry Xmas has never been about being PC, its always been about not alienating paying customers. In my somewhat philosophically adventurous life I've spent the Winter holidays with everyone from Wiccans to fundamentalist Protestants. None have ever had an issue with others wishing them Merry Christmas. The non-Xtians did find it odd though that some Christians would refuse to wish them well in their own holiday celebrations. No Happy Solstice or Happy Hanukkah for those prigs. It was Merry Christmas or nothing.

December 23 2010 at 11:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As for me and my family we will continue to celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ as we have always done . And no politician.. no individual..and no group will deter me from doing so .. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year .

December 23 2010 at 12:48 PM Report abuse +17 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to happyone6470's comment

Just out of curiosity what court, politician, individual or group has attempted to deter you and your family (i.e.; you personally, as differentiated from Government sponsored activities) from celebrating Christmas as the birth of Christ?

December 24 2010 at 8:36 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

The Dec. 25th date does not belong to the Christians. It was the birthday of Mithra. This was highjacked by the Christian church back in late Roman times. The Zaroastrian religion dates to six hundred or so years BC and was one of the most widespread of the religions in the Roman Empire.

December 23 2010 at 9:30 AM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply

You know, I started reading this because the headline snagged my interest. If you would like to go back to the carnival of the 1700's I invite you to do so. Right or wrong this is the season chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Apparently no one wrote down the date, which was inconsiderate of them, but there you go. As you've noted, many people leave it at lights and presents and hand holding, and many Christians take offense and are callous and perhaps cruel in their protests; but you sir are painting with an exceedingly broad brush in coloring us all that way. Perhaps the "reason for the season" runs deeper than the birthday party and touches on the reason for his Coming at all, to save us from ourselves and offer hope to everyone. He came for everyone, but on His terms and not ours. I am sure He is dismayed at how lots of us celerate, not because of the impious party, the bible is full of wild celebration at all times of the year. But because we make it about what we want and forget to celebrate His coming all together. And you are free to label me whatever you want, but I guess I get to claim the same right to freedom of religion as anyone else here. I hope you do have a Merry Christmas. Thank you for the thought provoking words.

December 23 2010 at 9:29 AM Report abuse +18 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Teri's comment

Teri, Your my Hero for the day!

December 23 2010 at 12:19 PM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply

There is the historical fact that Christmas as originally defined by the Catholic Church was a fairly minor holiday meant to celebrate Jesus' birth, though no more intended to coincide with his actual birth date than did any of the other "mass" days (Michaelmas, for instance). If anything, it's original purpose was a force-fit celebration in an attempt to make the idea of Christianity more palatable for the pagans that the early Medieval church was trying to convert.

Then there its long cultural, and primarily secular (or at least non-Christian) history as a Winter Solstice celebration and the fact that for half of the history of the United States Christmas was not listed amongst our "official" holidays.

None of that does anything to take away from the current mix of secular and sacred expression that comprises the modern interpretation of Christmas. I am as secular a person as you will find. My family never celebrated Christmas when I was growing up, but I fondly looked forward every year to singing a whole host of religious-themed carols back in my High School choir year. The joy it brought others to hear those songs belted out in neighborhood malls, nursing homes, school auditoria and street-side on cold December nights in my little home town was undeniable. In short, it made me feel good to make others feel good, and I was in no way diminished by singing about the miracle of Christ's birth, or celebrating him in "Handel's Messiah".

Religious or not, the holiday seems to bring together family, friends and colleagues. If a person of faith wishes me a Merry Christmas, I return the greeting with utter sincerity, though I am not a Christian. If I know the person whom I am greeting is an observant Christian, they will receive the same hearty greeting from me, and happily so. If someone wishes me Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah, or a greeting for any of the other faith-based celebrations that occur this time of year, I am the happier for having received it, and equally happy to return their felicitations.

I have never understood why anyone-- Christian or otherwise-- would feel offended by a greeting, or the way in which someone else chooses to celebrate (or not to). Is their faith (or lack thereof) so weak in its foundation that they cannot abide any expression other than their own? True faith, to this outsider, should be able to acknowledge, if not agree with, someone else's expression of faith, celebration or just plain holiday cheer in the spirit in which it was intended. This Christmas season, lets all strive to give less offense, and take less as well.

Merry Christmas indeed, and Happy Holidays!

December 23 2010 at 8:42 AM Report abuse +21 rate up rate down Reply

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