By Terry Golway The Star-Ledger (New Jersey)
On the 25th day of December, church bells throughout Christendom will call the faithful — and no small number of the not-so-faithful — to services and liturgies like none other. The morning’s readings will recount one of the world’s great narratives, the ancient story of a child born to a Jewish couple in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, a child whom the world’s 2 billion Christians believe was God incarnate.
Clerics, delighted to see the pews filled, will take pains to remind their congregations that the festive day is rooted not in gift-giving or visits from a bearded fat man, but in divine intervention of the most mysterious kind.
It is an experience, however, that most of the world’s population does not share.
For the 5 billion members of the global community who are not Christian, Christmas Day should be day like any other. They do not believe in the divinity of the Christ child. They have narratives of their own, narratives that do not include an inn filled to capacity, a lowly manger, angels heard on high, frightened shepherds or three wandering wise men. They have nothing to celebrate on Christmas.
Or do they? Thomas Nast, the legendary illustrator, thought they did. More than nearly anybody else, including Charles Dickens, Nast reinterpreted the Christmas story for nonbelievers, for children, and for those of little and perhaps even no faith.
Nast popularized the image of Santa Claus in the pages of Harper’s Weekly, one of the 19th century’s most-influential periodicals. From the moment his first Santa illustration appeared in Harper’s in 1862, the so-called “war on Christmas” began. In a series of popular images, Nast developed a new holiday story, one seemingly divorced from the story of a birth in Bethlehem. Nast’s image of Santa was the first wave of the attack. New York City’s retail shops soon provided reinforcements in the form of Christmas gifts. The mop-up came in the form of songs celebrating talking snowmen, a reindeer with a red nose and even an unfortunate accident involving Grandma and an out-of-control sleigh. Thus was a holy day transformed into a holiday.
So the journey from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” began long before Fox News and Bill O’Reilly detected an anti-Christian conspiracy among militant secularists in the media and in commerce. This year, O’Reilly and Fox have revisited the “war on Christmas” in a seasonal ritual that has become as predictable as Christmas Eve performances of Handel’s “Messiah” on secular radio stations — although hardly as elegant. Their argument is that the festivities that coincide with late December should be recognized for what they are — Christmas celebrations — rather than some generic, vaguely multicultural commemoration of, well, of something. The end of the year, perhaps.
For many believing Christians, this argument is not without merit. The Rev. James Martin, the wonderful Jesuit writer who generally wouldn’t agree with O’Reilly on a weather report never mind cultural politics, recently wrote that in polite society, the Christ child whose birth inspired the festivities has become “he who must not be named … the new Voldemort.”
The child’s name, indeed his very existence, is absent from office parties, classroom activities and civic commemorations of what is called the “holiday season.” To some, this absence represents a triumph of Christmas-hating secular Scrooges determined to expunge the culture of any sort of Christian narrative. But that interpretation clearly is myopic and, frankly, not very Christian.
First of all, those who revere the Christmas story — not Nast’s, not Rudolph’s, but the New Testament version — should be glad that retailers seem less inclined to invoke Christmas in their campaigns to get us to spend and consume. If a salesperson or cashier is told to offer generic holiday greetings instead of a merry Christmas during the shameful Black Friday shopping orgies, that’s a victory in the war for Christmas. The Christ child surely was not born in a manger so that followers might one day mark the occasion by leasing a luxury SUV. Better to blame that impulse on Santa.
Second, embedded even in the secular celebrations of the generic holiday season is a story whose power and imagery simply cannot be effaced. The Christmas message of joy and love and wonder is at the heart of every secular holiday party, every holiday tree lighting and every seasonal embrace, just as it is part of every Christmas liturgy around the globe. Even seemingly secular stories such as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol are filled with explicit or implicit religious imagery and themes.
In Dickens’s little masterpiece, the bedraggled clerk Bob Cratchit speaks of being in church on Christmas with his son, Tiny Tim. “He told me,” Cratchit says of Tim, “that he hoped people saw him in church because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant for them to remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”
Even in Dickensian England, it would seem, the faithful needed poignant reminders of the reason for the season.
Still, secularists have to admit — and believers should embrace — a simple truth: Without Christmas, there is no universal holiday season beyond the bacchanal of New Year’s Eve. Jews around the world still would celebrate Chanukah, and some Africans and African-Americans would mark the harvest festival of Kwanzaa. Neither, however, has the mass appeal of Christmas, at least not in the Americas and Europe.
But in a society that grows only more diverse with each year, perhaps the holiday season requires both versions of the Christmas story — Thomas Nast’s as well as Saint Luke’s. Christians need not fear this. Rather, they should accept the compliment: They have created traditions that others seek to share, however imperfectly.
Martin argues that the war on Christmas actually has been lost, not because of anti-Christian bias but because of the triumph of commercialism over faith — the unredeemed Scrooge prevailing over the soulful Cratchit. Martin advises those who celebrate Christmas as a holy day to pray more and buy less. That, he said, would constitute an act of resistance against a culture that worships gross materialism and the hollow pleasure of having more.
So it would. But it still does not answer the question of Christmas’s competing narratives: the one written by Saint Luke, which speaks of an infant lying in a manger, and the one illustrated by Nast, which, in its own way, celebrates the same qualities of wonder and joy that make Luke’s Nativity story one of the world’s great texts.
Is there room for both? Is the Christmas story meant only for believers, or can its power be shared in other stories?
The answer may be within the Christmas story itself.
According to Luke, an angel of the Lord visited shepherds in their fields on that night in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago to announce the Christ child’s birth. The glad tidings, the angel said, “shall be to all the people,” not just believers, not just the faithful.
And with that, Luke writes, a multitude of angels appeared in the sky, offering prayers for peace on Earth “to men of good will.”
That is the Christmas message, unforgettable in its simple beauty. Look for it in Scripture, but look for it elsewhere, too. For the Christmas message of peace and joy is written in the hearts of all people of good will — Christians and non-Christians, believers and nonbelievers — who long not for seasonal scarves and stocking stuffers, but for solace and joy in the company of those they love.
As the angel of the Lord told frightened shepherds, it is a message meant to be shared.
Terry Golway is the director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy.