Since we live in a visual culture, the popular evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans posted a handy-dandy flowchart to help us navigate this perennial problem. It starts with one question: “Did someone threaten your life, safety, civil liberties, or right to worship?” If the answer is “Yes,” you are being persecuted. If the answer is “No,” you can proceed to the next question: “Did someone wish you ‘Happy Holidays’?” If the answer is “Yes,” you are not being persecuted. If the answer is “No,” you are still not being persecuted.
I know that’s snarky, but I can’t help but feel that it’s a waste of energy to get worked up about someone saying “Happy Holidays!” That energy would be far better spent combating childhood hunger or economic inequality or our consumer culture—if there is a war on Christmas, I think it has more to do with consumerism and economic injustice than anything else.
Part of what bothers me about the “War on Christmas” conversation is that it shows that we feel afraid and threatened. But—of what? Why do we feel like “Happy Holidays” is an attack on Christianity instead of an attempt at being inclusive?
Our society is more and more pluralistic and diverse, and that troubles some people. We want to make sure our faith isn’t being swayed by society or tainted by secular influences.
But we forget that the celebration of Christmas as we know it today is full of secular influences. That Christmas tree in your living room is not Christian, it’s pagan. The date of Christmas was not determined by the exact day Jesus was born; it was established to coincide with the Roman holiday of the winter solstice.
Even in the Bible, pagans are an integral part of the nativity story. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ genealogy includes 4 women—which is scandalous enough on its own, but to make matters worse, none of them are of Jewish descent. And then the wise men, the magi—they probably came from what we know today as Iraq, and they certainly were not Jewish. The first people to acknowledge and respond to Jesus as king were pagans.
Reflecting on the story of the magi Jennifer Hockenbery reminds us that Christianity itself has roots in different traditions. The Gospels have Greek, Roman, and Jewish influences. Christianity is the product of interfaith and intercultural dialogue.
This might make some people nervous. We are talking about truth, after all. Truth, this thing that seems so absolute, is suddenly called into question when we encounter people with different truths. We are tempted to fight back and protect our truth.
But truth is not a weapon. Truth is a gift.
A gift is to be received and shared and accepted—or not. Some people worry that learning about other faiths will distort or destroy their own, but that has not been my experience. In any genuine interfaith encounter, I come away feeling more rooted in my own faith, not less. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others.”
Now mind you, I’m not saying that we should focus only on what we have in common and ignore our differences. That does no one any good and is, in fact, dishonest. True interfaith dialogue occurs when people start by speaking their own truth—remembering that it is a gift to be shared and not a weapon to be wielded. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Unity has never meant uniformity.” We can find common ground and acknowledge our differences at the same time.
I am a stronger Christian for the Jews who have taught me about my religion’s ancestry, for the Muslims who have challenged my spiritual practices, for the Buddhists who have modeled stillness for me, and sometimes most of all for the pagans and atheists who have questioned the most basic assumptions of my faith.
The celebration of Christmas is not about saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays!” It is about remembering that God came into this world and became one of us, in all our complexity and diversity and messiness and beauty.
So what do we do with all of this?
Well, we sing. We sit together at a table. We find faith and common ground.
And only pumpkin pies are burning.