December 23, 2004

Merry Christmahannukwanzaa

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 3:25 pm

In this season of peace and goodwill, it’s ironic that many are fighting over the words “Merry Christmas” and symbols of the birth of the Prince of Peace. For some articles on the topic, see here, here and here. The issue seems to have two aspects: one is legal, the other personal.

For the legal, the question is whether public displays of the Nativity violate the Establishment Clause. Slate had an excellent explanation of the legal issues three years ago. This is another front in the culture war, with Christians, conservative and otherwise, feeling like the victims. It’s important to remember, though, that the Establishment Clause is our friend, not our enemy, and is weakened at our peril. Also, we should remember that the decisions to avoid references to Christmas or Jesus in public “holiday” observances are being made by mid-level administrators who are just trying to avoid complaints and lawsuits. While they may be over-reacting out of ignorance of the law and an over-active desire to avoid criticism, they aren’t the forces of the anti-Christ. Finally, many of the most vocal defenders of Christmas like Bill O’Reilly and Pat Buchanan use the fact that the majority of Americans are Christian as a justification for government displays of the Nativity. It’s important to remember though that our nation is built on two democratic principles: majority rule and minority rights. If we want Christian minorities to be respected in China, Iran and Palestine, we should do the same to the non-Christian minorities here.

On the personal side, the question has become whether a Christian should wish a non-believer “Merry Christmas”. Pat Buchanan and Bill O’Reilly have been advocating an in-your-face “Merry Christmas” as an assertion of Christian rights. I think it’s important to remember that “Merry Christmas” is a benediction, a personal wish of good things to others. As with all such wishes such as “have a nice day”, “have a good vacation”, or “hope you feel better”, it shouldn’t be a reflection of the needs of the speaker but the recipient. When Jesus spoke to the people he met, he didn’t speak to them out of his own needs, ego or personal agenda, but he told them what they needed to hear, based on who and where they were. We should do the same. I wouldn’t wish one of my practicing Jewish friends to have a merry Christmas, but to have a great Hannukah instead. To do otherwise would be to tell them what I want to say rather than what they need to hear, and would rightly cause offense. Evangelism isn’t using a “Merry Christmas” as a club to beat someone with.

On the other hand, it can really lift my spirits when I hear a “Merry Christmas” from an anonymous sales clerk in a store. And evangelism does include proclaiming your own belief in Christ.

So, whether you wish someone a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”, make sure you mean it and are saying it for the benefit of the recipient, not yourself. And if you’re not sure which greeting the recipient would most like to hear, take a chance and wish them a merry Christmas. After all, the majority of Americans are Christian.

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