The Xmas Wars
by Trudy Morgan Cole
It’s not hard, at least in most parts of North America this time of year, to see evidence of what some have called the “Xmas Wars” – the debate between Christians (usually of the conservative evangelical variety) and their more secular neighbors, over how overtly religious the celebration of Christmas should be. Even an Anglican church near my house has a sign out front reading, “Merry Christmas – Don’t Be Ashamed to Say It!”
This year my Facebook feed was full of Christians exhorting others to “Keep Christ in Christmas” and expressing anger at those who watered down their salutations to “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings.” On the other end of the spectrum, my pagan friend declared she was taking back the holiday from Christians and would henceforth wish everyone a “Merry Yule.”
My thoughts about the whole issue came to a head when I was trying to decide whether I should give a Christmas card to the lovely couple who clean my house, since to the best of my knowledge they are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Like most people I don’t stand around as I’m leaving the house on Thursday mornings discussing my cleaners’ religious affiliations with them; any conversation we do manage to squeeze in if our paths cross has more to do with me running out of Mr. Clean than with whether or not Jesus is equal with the Father. But the whole train of thought reminded me that I’ve been confronting this issue of how we talk about Christmas for many years now – and I owe it all to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I grew up attending a Seventh-day Adventist school in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Due to the rather unusual educational system we had in those days, a number of different churches ran their own schools with full government funding, so there were no tuition costs. This meant that our school was run by the Adventist church, staffed by Adventist teachers, taught an Adventist Bible curriculum, but was attended by a diverse mix of students, of whom about 10-20% were actually Seventh-day Adventists. Many were just kids from the neighborhood, and there was always a fair contingent of students from other conservative churches whose parents had decided our school was a “safe” place to send their kids.
During my school years, this contingent was largely made up of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who at times outnumbered Adventists as the single largest minority group in our Adventist-run school. Every class had a JW or two in it, just as every class had an SDA kid or two. And, just as we don’t normally discuss the divinity of Christ with our cleaning persons, kids don’t usually stand around on the playground discussing what dates your church has set for the Second Coming, or other distinctive doctrines.
But one distinctive doctrine was made clear to us early on: the Jehovah’s Witness kids didn’t celebrate Christmas. Or Easter. Or even their own birthdays.
But mostly Christmas. We knew this because Christmas is HUGE in elementary school, what with the concerts and the parties and the gift exchanges, all of which these kids were excused or excluded from. We knew this, we accepted it, and, as we got older, we tried to accommodate it.
I remember vividly a Student Council discussion sometime in junior high or high school that centered around the question: If we called our Christmas banquet a Winter Banquet instead, could the Jehovah’s Witness kids attend? I don’t remember the outcome of the Christmas Banquet vs. Winter Banquet debate; what I remember is how early we got trained in trying to understand and accommodate other people’s diversity.
The Jehovah’s Witness parents were right, at least to a point — the SDA school was a good place to send their kids, because Seventh-day Adventists, in those days anyway, had a high respect for religious liberty, including the liberties of those who disagreed with us. It seemed to me, from my standpoint as a teenager, that our teachers and school board had an understanding: If we were ever in a situation where we were required to attend school on Saturday or something else that violated our beliefs, we’d want people to make accommodations for us. In this situation, since we were the ones in power, we had to do the same.
We didn’t do a perfect job of it. For all I know, the JW kids who attended school with me may have felt scarred for life by their exclusion from Christmas celebrations. But the point is, we knew the issue was real and even as kids we were confronted with it and forced to wrestle with it. Not everyone else believes, worships, or celebrates the same way we do. Deal with it.
It’s that matter-of-fact attitude I miss these days, as we get deluged with the annual flood of self-righteous outrage about “Keeping Christ in Christmas” and taking back the sacred term “Merry Christmas” from the godless oppressors who force us to say “Happy Holidays.” It is really such a hardship to have to take other people’s feelings into account? Isn’t that what we used to call “respect”? How does it take Christ out of your Christmas, or mine, if we say “Season’s Greetings” to a neighbor who’s not Christian? Most of the non-Christians (or non-Christmas-celebrating Christians) I know don’t get bent out of shape if someone does wish them Merry Christmas, but does it hurt us to take a moment to be inclusive and non-offensive?
What concerns me most about this annual tide of moral outrage is when I hear my fellow Seventh-day Adventists jumping on this bandwagon. Leaving aside the ultraconservative fringe of Adventists who don’t think we should observe Christmas at all, I’ve noticed a disconcerting number of mainstream, middle-of-the-road Adventists who have joined their voices with those of the Christian Right. They insist on nativity scenes in public places and overtly religious Christmas greetings, and decry the “political correctness” of those who seek to make the holidays more inclusive.
Lately it seems Adventists are quick to jump on a lot of these bandwagons. I’ve heard the term “human rights” spoken in an adult Sabbath School discussion with such contempt you’d think it was one degree removed from profanity. We’re even willing, it seems, to ally ourselves with people who spread hate speech, all in the name of our own “religious freedom.” Our definition of religious liberty seems to be moving towards meaning the freedom to offend others as much as we want, as long as we’re doing it in God’s name.
I can’t help thinking that as Adventists we’re drifting away from our historical position that religious liberty for us means religious liberty for everyone, even people we disagree with. I hate to see us climbing aboard the Ship of Righteous Indignation along with the right-wing evangelicals, who are glad enough to have us on board for the moment but who would (in my humble opinion) be the first to push us overboard if they ever wanted to, say, pass a National Sunday Law or something.
Giving rights to people you disagree with doesn’t take away from your own rights – if anything, it means your own are more likely to be safeguarded when you need them – the very thing early Adventists understood when they became leaders in the field of religious liberty. Being respectful and courteous to people, taking their feelings and wishes into account – which, 99.9% of the time, is all that “political correctness” entails — is one of the very reasons Jesus came to earth. Not on December 25, of course, but on some night around two thousand years ago. He came to tell us, as I recall, that we should treat others pretty much how we’d like to be treated.
So if I wish anyone Merry Yule, Happy Hanukah, Good Bodhi Day, or even, a little earlier in the season, Shubh Diwali or Eid Mubarak – or for that matter Happy New Year, Happy Holidays, or Season’s Greetings — none of those wishes detracts in the slightest from the Nativity scene in my house or the emphasis I place with my family on commemorating Jesus’ birth and His mission. Likewise, I’ll accept any and all good wishes I get in the spirit they were given, whether people mention the name of Christ in their greeting or not.
Because when we get up on our high horses about people taking away our right to say Merry Christmas … I’m pretty sure Baby Jesus cries a little.