I’m a Christian who grew up not realizing there were holidays at the end of the year besides Christmas and New Year’s. I never had to. I was in the majority and uttering the words “Merry Christmas” was akin to breathing air; it was just something everyone did.
That’s why the supposed war on Christmas has long baffled me. I grew up being warned not to allow Christmas to become too secular, too focused on gift-giving and not enough on Jesus, only later to see fellow Christians outraged that employees at the mall and on commercials had begun saying “Happy Holidays” instead.
The irony is that in 1999, a federal court said that Christmas did not violate the establishment of religion clause of the U.S. Constitution because it had become so secular and was even being celebrated by non-Christians. That’s right. One of Christianity’s most sacred holidays can remain public because it has been deemed insufficiently religious, and many Christians are passionately using the same rationale to protect the faith from a contrived war that only they seem to be fighting.
I only learned about other religions – or that you could be an atheist and a good person at the same time – when I was introduced to them after many years of believing there was only one true faith. And still, none of those faiths is treated with the deference Christianity is afforded in the United States, even with the secular embrace of “happy holidays,” which is simply a wise move by retailers and advertisers to engage as many potential customers as possible, and the ability of others to voice opinions and encourage laws and social norms that don’t squarely align with the conservative Christianity I long embraced.
That’s why it has been odd to hear white evangelical Christians, in particular, giddily respond to President Donald Trump’s claim that we can now say “Merry Christmas” again, as though President Barack Obama had outlawed the phrase. He hadn’t; it’s easy to find video of Obama repeatedly using the phrase himself in multiple settings while in office. It’s been odder still that the same Christians embraced Trump, a man whose life choices have not illustrated he has adhered to many – if any – Christian tenets while shunning Obama, a man whose personal life does.
As Christians, we are so accustomed to being the sole center of attention, it can feel like an attack when others are invited on stage to soak up a bit of the spotlight, too.
Christmas remains the center of the universe this time of year, and that likely won’t change. There is Hanukkah, which receives public respect but not nearly the public attention of Christmas. There’s Kwanzaa, celebrated in many African-American households. There’s the Prophet’s birthday for Muslims and The Wright Brothers Day and the December solstice and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and others most of us probably wouldn’t recognize.
My understanding of Christmas is that God decided to come to Earth in human form – leaving behind the trappings and high status available to an all-powerful being – to reach the left-behind, downtrodden and hard-hearted and others, to humble himself to begin a journey that would end in the ultimate sacrifice. Somehow, that lesson has gotten lost by too many Christians in a rush to preserve a status that isn’t even in jeopardy.
That’s why “happy holidays,” which is an embrace of all people, is a truer adherence to the Christmas spirit than “Merry Christmas” has become. Don’t be fooled otherwise.
Issac J. Bailey is interim associate editor for the Charlotte Observer editorial board.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.