The Most Needlessly Political Time of the Year, or, “In Defense of ‘A Christmas Carol”’

The month of December can be a very politically charged time in the United States, mainly due to the culture-war tinted phenomenon commonly known as, “The War on Christmas.” Right wing spokespeople like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity ostensibly represent all Christians as they challenge and chastise godless Americans for such heinous crimes as saying, “Happy Holidays,” instead of, “Merry Christmas”, or putting a photo of the family dog on their Christmas cards instead of a Bible verse. I wish I was exaggerating here, but Bill O’Reilly actually did this to the Obamas on his show this year. This is the conversation we’re having, Bill O’Reilly? You’re going to hate on a picture of a puppy on a Christmas card? Someone’s been taking good notes in Cartoon Villain School.

As an evangelical Christian who believes that effectively sharing the truth of Christ is the most loving thing that we can do for the other human beings, I find the War on Christmas a bit irritating. And by, “The War on Christmas,” I don’t mean folks who say, “Happy Holidays,” or put puppies on Christmas cards.  The part of the, “War on Christmas,” that wearies me is the supposed culture warriors that take it up every year.

I will readily admit that people who voice concerns about the over-secularization of Christmas sometimes have a valid point. Every now and then, there are genuine cultural attacks on the faith-based meaning behind Christmas, and I agree that Christians have a right to be just as unhappy about that as any other faith group would be in the same circumstance. For instance, if a group of Atheists put up an, “Anti-Nativity,” with a troll doll standing in for the Baby Jesus and a cut-out of Anna Nicole Smith as the Virgin Mary, for the sole purpose of being jerks and mocking the meaning that Christmas has for Christians, then yeah, that’s crossing the line, and I would be upset right along with everyone else.

But most of the time, people cry, “War on Christmas!” for much smaller, downright inoffensive offenses. Either the term itself, or some form of the sentiment behind it, is hurled at little gestures in which the “perpetrators” meant no harm, and were not intending to be disrespectful to Christians or our beliefs in any way. But, because the gesture was in some way related to Christmas, and did not include a direct, explicit reference to Christ or His birth, the War on Christmas folks interpret it as a direct attack on Christians, and even on Christ Himself.

This approach to the secular side of Christmas amps up the issue so far past, “legitimate concern” that it crashes into the depths of, “oversensitively,” at a skin-peeling 1,000 knots, making us Christians look like cultural tyrants that must have our faith explicitly mentioned in absolutely every aspect of any cultural production related to, “our,” holiday, lest the rest of society face our very loud and impassioned displeasure.

It’s this vaguely tyrannical sense of offense over the small, dare I say harmless, things—the, “Happy Holidays” signs in store windows;  the Rudolph displays in the mall; the President’s dog on a Christmas card—that makes me tired every time I turn on the news during the month of December. I am convinced that this Christmas Tsar mentality of insisting that whatever anyone else does reflect OUR BELIEFS at all times does far more harm to our ultimate mission—i.e. sharing the love  and message of Christ with others—than any, “Happy Holidays,” banner or Santa Clause display ever could.

The most interesting example of the Christmas Tsar mentality that I have ever seen occurred this summer. I was in a discussion group in which one member expressed displeasure at the fact that A Christmas Carol did not include a direct reference to the Nativity. That’s right: one of the most beloved, harmless, well-intentioned Christmas classics of the last 200 years, and he was legitimately unsettled by the fact that it lacked an explicit reference to the birth of Christ. And I thought hating on a puppy on a Christmas card required the most unabashed nerve that I had ever seen.

In all seriousness, though, this baffling display of the War on Christmas mentality continues to fascinate me over six months later, not only because it is, in my opinion, rather over-the-top, but because it is legitimately unfounded. I would argue that this Victorian  morality tale has significantly more direct connection to Christ than the pine tree that, I’m sure, sits in that gentleman’s living room every Christmas.

Dickens keeps the Christ in his Christmas Carol with subtly, artistry and grace, weaving Him into the story’s messages, as opposed to adding a scene in which the ghost of Christmas past takes Scrooge back to Bethlehem and spells out the intended point of the story, just to make sure that we all get the idea.

Anyone who grew up in the West knows the plot of A Christmas Carol backwards and forwards, so rather than recounting the events of the narrative, let’s go straight to themes. The story is saturated with three overarching ideas:  valuing your fellow man, compassion for the poor, and privileging love and generosity over profit.  It’s a simple, powerful story about the imperative necessity of prioritizing the welfare of human beings above the need to, “get ahead.” Those who don’t see what any of that has to do with Jesus need to read their New Testaments a lot more closely.

I would argue that A Christmas Carol isn’t even specifically about Christmas. Dickens could have set a story involving those messages at any time of year, but he chose the period in which we celebrate the birth of the Man who both embodied and taught all of those ideas to His followers. I would not be surprised if Dickens used a Christmas setting as a subtle way to remind his readers that the values that the text espoused were not, in fact, his, but Christ’s, using the choice of season to point to Jesus, not to squeeze Him out of the holiday.  In one small way, the gentleman at that meeting was right:  A Christmas Carol does not include a strong Nativity reference, but it doesn’t have a Nativity because it doesn’t need one. A Christmas Carol isn’t about the birth of Christ; it’s about the teachings of Christ.

Even if you believe that every bit of media related to Christmas should contain at least one direct Christ reference, then A Christmas Carol is still the least of your worries. At least one direct, if subtle, reference to the person of Christ occurs when Bob Cratchit mentions that his crippled son wanted everyone in church to see him walking with his crutch “because it might be pleasant for them to remember, upon Christmas day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see” (94).

According to some interpretations, the story includes not only a direct Christ reference, but also an actual Christ figure, in the person of, “The Ghost of Christmas Present.”  Throughout the story, each spirit contributes to Scrooge’s redemption of character by showing him things that they feel he needs to see, but the Ghost of Christmas Present is the only one who offers Scrooge, not only images of others, but his own spiritual person, as a part of the learning and redemption process. He alone of the three ghosts urges Scrooge to, “come in, and know me better man,” making him the only spirit who points directly to himself as a part of Scrooge’s transformation process. His admonishment implies that a more intimate understanding of the Ghost of Christmas Present will change Scrooge for the better.

Christmas Present is also the only one of the spirits that directly confronts Scrooge about his callousness and lack of compassion toward the poor, leading to some conviction on Scrooge’s part. Technically speaking, you could argue that this briefly places Christmas Present in the, “Holy Spirit” role, although Jesus did convict the Woman at the Well by pointing out what He knew about her sins. I feel compelled to point out that He was much gentler with her than Christmas Present is with Scrooge, however.

Another, less global aspect of Christmas Present’s character may lend support to this interpretation. When Scrooge asks the spirit about his family, Christmas Present laughs and replies that he has “over 1800” brothers and sisters. This detail seems out of place until you consider that Christ is described in scripture as, “the first born over all Creation”(Colossians 1:15), and those who have embraced His sacrifice as payment for their sins as “co-hires” with Him under the same Father (Romans 8:15-17).  The statement in A Christmas Carol is brief and never expounded upon, but one could argue that it’s a reference to Christ’s position as the “first born among many brothers” (Romans 8:29).

Whether or not you accept this interpretation of Christmas Present’s character, the story still passes the, “at least one direct Jesus reference,” test that seems to be a requirement for War on Christmas soldiers. More importantly, the story itself preaches many of the same things that Christ did; it just does it with the slightest bit of subtly. Dickens offers us two plus two and lets us come up with four. It’s worth noting that this approach to relating a message, and, indeed, to telling a story, mirrors Christ just as much as the novel’s messages do. Jesus preferred to teach via parables that required the listeners to glean the intended truths for themselves, rather than have everything spelled out for them. If Christ appreciated subtle storytelling that required the audience to be thoughtfully engaged in order to glean the intended message, then why shouldn’t we?

Of course, there is a chance that these kinds of arguments would not satisfy the War on Christmas crowd very well. That’s there prerogative, but on a wider note, I would request that they consider the following: if we are really serious about keeping secularists from, “taking the Christ out of Christmas,” then we might consider moving our faith-based celebration of the holiday to either October or April. According to some Theologians, one of these two months likely contains  Christ’s actual, literal birth date, as opposed to the pagan festival day that the church co-opted centuries ago as the date on which we would celebrate His birth. If we’re serious about winning the war, then maybe we should go all the way, and celebrate in a different section of the calendar from secularists like that Charles Dickens fellow, with his morality story about valuing love over greed, caring for the poor, and remembering “Who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” After all, where’s the Christ in that?

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If Only They Were A Little Less… Themselves and a Little More…Us

I’m not sure what mechanism of the human brain gives us a distain for our most recent stage of life the second that we move on to the next one, but when it comes to the way that adults view teenagers, I think that a little introspection would do all of us a lot of good.  Maybe my sample is skewed by the fact that I spend so much time on the internet, but I can’t help but notice a long-standing pattern of the 20-something-and-up demographic  condescending to the  pre-college set for having the brazen audacity to be under twenty-one in a society where other people are  over twenty- one.

Now, I realize that young people need to be taken to task for specific behaviors now and then in order to help them learn and mature. I even understand the “damn kids” impulse to some degree. It’s irritating to go to a movie and listen to pre-teen girls scream when an actor takes his shirt off. It’s frightening to have a near-collision with an inexperienced seventeen-year-old driver. It stings to be dismissed by someone who thinks that they know better when you try to offer them advice out of love. The unexamined gut response to all of these things is to blame the individual for their inexperience in handling these kinds of life events, but I think the key to the problem with the “damn kids” attitude is the word, “unexamined”.  If we took a minute to look closely at this condescension toward those who commit the crime of being younger than ourselves, it might occur to us that:

  1. Being frustrated with someone five or more years younger than you are for not navigating the world with the same assurance or maturity that you do is like taking an amputee to task for not being able to run a marathon after two days on a prosthetic. They don’t have the tools that they need to interact with the world the way you do, because they are not yet where you are. They are learning; have a little compassion and patience.
  2. We have nothing to be smug about. Absolutely nothing. The fact that you were born  five or more years before that high school sophomore texting in the theatre seat next to you is not an accomplishment. It does not make you a better person or a higher life form; it just makes you a little older. Yes, you have more life experience than that fourteen year old, but not because you are inherently more accomplished than that fourteen-year-old. You have more experience  than that fourteen- year- old because the acquisition of life experience beyond fourteen years is the general result of living longer than fourteen years.  Unless you are trying to claim superiority over a fellow human being based on the fact that you’ve been blinking, breathing and walking on the Earth a little longer than they have, being more experienced than a high school student at the age of twenty is not an accomplishment.
  3. . Everyone over the age of fifteen was, in fact, fifteen, at one point. We all had to fight our way through that stage of life and imbibe whatever its bumps and potholes could teach us. Some of us had a more challenging adolescence than others, but we all had one. The fact that someone else is going through a stage of life that you have already been through does not make him or her an automatic candidate for your scorn.

When you look at it too closely, the “how dare teenagers be teenagers” complaint makes about as much sense as Professor Higgins’s inability to understand why women are not men.[i] I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’m pretty sure that becoming comfortable with the fact that other people are not exactly like you is one of the early signs of true maturity.

And if nothing else in this discussion speaks to you, I respectfully beg you to remember that, whenever you complain about how “teenagery” and generally Not Like You young people are…this is what you sound like.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Doz5w2W-jAY


[i] For the uninitiated, this is a reference to the 1964 Audrey Hepburn film, “My Fair Lady.”