By John Bryson Chane
Whatever happened to Christmas? Once Halloween is over it seems as if every shopping mall and airport concourse are decorated with the politically correct “Happy Holidays” message.
And what’s with the demise of Christmas trees? Now they’re called Holiday trees. My brother lives in a small Massachusetts town where public commons predate the Revolutionary War. Last year he phoned me, ready to power up a chain saw and march down to the common to defoliate what, for the first time in the history of that town, was called the “holiday tree.” I entreated him to write a letter to the editor at the local paper instead, and to save his chain saw for something less physically taxing. It worked! The letter provoked an outcry from the old timers in town who said: “Enough of this foolishness. We’ll have a Christmas tree and a Menorah on the common, and that’s that.” No doubt someone will sue the town, if not this year then next, about the use of public property for religious purposes, but “come on now, get a life.”
And Santa Claus, that veritable survivor, now appears on television shilling Coke products, and handcrafting Mercedes Benz automobiles with his own personal welding torch. Santa and his elves still hang out in big department stores like they did when I was a boy, but now son or daughter can get a personalized, digitalized photo with the “big guy” for $5. I even heard rumors that the Actors Guild was thinking of unionizing department store and mall Santas.
Whatever happened to Christmas? I’d like to try and answer that. We have been at war in Iraq and in Afghanistan for too long. Some say the total cost will eventually come out to more than a trillion dollars. Too many of our young servicemen and women and our older guardsmen have paid the ultimate price with their lives, and others will forever wear the scars of their sacrifices for all of us to see.
Stateside, the cost of living continues to increase, with prices for heating oil, gasoline and natural gas hitting all-time highs. Forty-eight million Americans live with no health insurance. Economists debate whether we are in stagflation or inflation. And the dollar is tanking faster than a falling barometer before an approaching hurricane. Public confidence in key elements of our American democracy – namely the U.S. Congress and the White House – are polling at near all-time lows.
The mortgage and foreclosure disaster produced by the unbridled greed of lenders and the hope of many to live the American dream of owning their own home has created a massive financial crisis. No one really knows how much of this iceberg is still hidden from view, but what is for sure is that lots of good folks have lost their homes and others struggle each month to hang on to them.
The Middle East continues to dominate our world view, and beyond Iraq and Afghanistan lies an emerging political crisis in Pakistan. Iran continues to present itself as a potential threat and a Persian puzzle our country has yet to decipher. Syria was recently caught “red handed” developing a nuclear enrichment facility with the apparent support of North Korean technology. And as we gather on Christmas Eve to sing O Little Town of Bethlehem, the truth is that Palestinian Christians and other Christian pilgrims are an endangered species in the Holy Land. On this Christmas, as on so many other Christmases past, many are not able to enter Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, because of a terribly flawed Israel/Palestine policy supported by the United States.
As I think about what happened to Christmas, I have one possible answer. All the commercial hype, the earlier timetable for decorating and the passion to engage with that “jolly old elf” is rooted in our understanding that regardless of how well we seem to have our life together, we are being buffeted by changes. Whether we are looking at the draining of the American treasury because of the war, the falling dollar, foreclosures, global warming or the horribly complex instability of the Middle East, there is, I believe, a question on everyone’s mind. What will the future look like? Will we ever again be what we once were, or thought we were, as a people and nation? Will our children have a harder time than we had growing up? Will they have the resources to survive a rapidly changing world and economy?
I believe this triggers the need for folks to rally around a time of the year when the expectation of giving and receiving gifts becomes something more than just a commercial enterprise. There is the caring for another, the cementing of a relationship, the expression of affection and love, and the hope that what one gives will be received with the spirit and meaning for which it was given.
I think we are jumping so much faster into getting our Christmas decorations up, our department stores stocked with Christmas “must haves,” because we are now in greater need than ever of seeking the hopeful in what seem to be almost hopeless times. Fear and the loss of what used to be have rapidly bred a deep human yearning for security and the assurance of the known.
At the very heart of the Christmas story is the annual retelling of a miracle, the birth of Jesus, the incarnation of God living and breathing among us in human form. And Jesus taught that no one has to be held captive by the unknown or imprisoned by fear. Christmas is the promise that through the miracle of Jesus’ birth, all things can be made new. And right now more than ever, the world and each one of us needs to be reminded of this great truth.
And so, “Whatever happened to Christmas?” Nothing, other than that we desperately want to be reminded of the power of its message and that we want it to become a greater part of our lives – more so than just on Dec. 25. We want to be reminded that miracles do happen, that the powerful message of Christmas needs to become a much larger part of our lives and that with God, all things are possible. Who knows, maybe decorations will go up after Labor Day next year!
The Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane is bishop of the Diocese of Washington (D. C.).