Merry Christmas, Mr Trump

[A version of this piece was published by USA Today.]

Drew Angerer, Getty Images - via USA Today
The President and some of his cheerleaders have been making much of the supposed restoration of “Merry Christmas” at the White House and around the country. What Mr Trump has called a defense of Judeo-Christian values makes much of a claim that “Merry Christmas” had been marginalized or suppressed.

Are “we” really not saying “Merry Christmas”? And does it matter?

The issue seems to be exaggerated at best; internet search data suggests “Merry Christmas” is still much more popular than “Happy Holidays.” The real but limited swing to “Happy Holidays” however may actually have to be attributed to the business world from which Mr Trump claims his credentials, rather than to some fantasy of political correctness.

Conservatives who are concerned about the myth of the disappearing Christmas greeting may well be channelling their anxiety about the decline in numbers experienced by many Christian denominations, and polls where Americans report religious beliefs as waning. Yet these changes in the direction of uncertainty or disbelief don’t seem likely to have been affected December greetings used by average members of the community. They have their roots in a secularism driven by quite different and much deeper forces.

“Happy Holidays" does seem to have grown in popularity, but in corporate use - in stores, for instance, and on greeting cards intended for clients. Businesses greeting consumers with “Happy Holidays” seek to welcome those who celebrate Kwanzaa or Hanukkah to shop, as well as the Christmas-observant. They but don’t seem deliberately to be erasing the religious and cultural specifics of the different holidays, so much as trying to encompass more customers who celebrate any of them. Yet any who go on those feared seasonal shopping expeditions often find that consumption threatens to overwhelms values, Judeo-Christian or other.

Christians do have a lot at stake in Christmas in particular, however. Although Christmas doesn’t stem directly from Jesus’ birthday (which is unknown), but is based on calculations made a few hundred years after his birth, it presents a set of fundamental beliefs about the world as well as about Jesus. Believers have long wanted to affirm the reality of divine presence in human life. The Christmas story - an angelic visit, a miraculous conception, a birth in poverty - reveals the heart of the Christian message which could be retold regularly and celebrated.

The celebration of Christmas has taken many forms across time and culture since then, but always seems to affirm human life and the possibility of glimpsing something of the divine in it, including in the experience of family life and children, as well as on the importance of caring for the vulnerable. Re-presentations of the story, from the Bible, to Medieval mystery plays, to Dickens' “Christmas Carol,” to the more downmarket TV versions from Peanuts or the Muppets, all gain their power from these themes. Christians of any stripe, and those whose faith is uncertain or grounded elsewhere but who recognize the values celebrated in the holiday, have much to lose if its meaning were forgotten, or its celebration ended.

What about those other “holidays”? In the northern hemisphere, the proximity of the feast to the winter solstice has added themes of warmth and light. The different traditions associated with Hanukkah and Kwanzaa complement these and the Christian ones, for the wider community as well as for those who celebrate them. So there are indeed “holidays” to celebrate, beyond Christmas itself.

So if the grain of truth in the myth of the disappearing Christmas greeting is its disappearance from the stores the anxiety about “Happy Holidays” is therefore not baseless, but its nature and its roots have been misunderstood. Without being intended as a specific means of undercutting religious faith, the “Happy Holidays” movement makes our common identity into that of consumers, rather than believers.

If there is a war against Christmas, the enemy seems to be within the gates. Disparities of wealth and poverty are arguably the greatest threat to the full celebration of Christmas and to the Judeo-Christian values for which conservatives long - as much or more so, at least, than any squeamishness about greetings. Real success in the celebration of Christmas is less visible in the particular slogans in store catalogues and email blasts than in the health and prosperity of the community, and not least the treatment of the most vulnerable.

Those concerned at the decline of faith in America might find better news this Christmas in a more sincere and practical witness to faith than in hollow repetitions of the culture wars. Support single mothers, refugees, and homeless children - like the main characters of the Christmas story - would be one way Christianity might suggest to an increasingly skeptical public that its story is still worth telling, and its good news worth believing.

Merry Christmas indeed, Mr Trump.

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