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FIRST-PERSON: Living above the semantics of the season

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–As they prepared to light what many would call the city’s “Christmas tree,” a spokesman for the town of Fishers, Ind., recently said that their “tree lighting ceremony” was void of the word “Christmas” in order to be “sensitive to all ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs.”

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans for the Separation of Church and State, believes that when people say “Christmas tree,” they are not being respectful of other faiths and backgrounds. The desire to respect diversity has many playing semantic games (rather than reindeer games) concerning what to call those big green things with lights and ornaments which grace our homes and communities during this time of the year.

Never mind the fact that “O holiday tree, O holiday tree” just doesn’t sing as well as “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree.” Shall we start singing “We wish you a Merry Holiday, We wish you a Merry Holiday”? Will employers go to the time-intensive work of changing all the paperwork so their employees will receive “holiday” bonuses instead of the usual “Christmas” bonuses?

Non-religious folks say they prefer the term “Holiday” over “Christmas.” Many of the faithful are describing this as religious discrimination. I have even heard a handful of pastors go so far as to say recently that this battle over what to call the season is nothing less than religious persecution. The debate is no doubt heated, but “religious persecution”? Our Christian brothers Polycarp and Bonhoeffer might consider such an assessment somewhat overstated.

Christians and non-Christians alike have laughed for years as we have read to our children the story of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” but this year many Christians believe that Christmas is indeed being stolen -— not by the Grinch, but by the world. Of course there are issues of church and state that must be realized, but some speculate that “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” is merely the continuing of a rapid slide down the slippery slope of secularization, resulting in the eventual loss of the true identity and nature of Christmas.

Christians must realize that non-Christians are not capable of truly appreciating or celebrating this season in the fullest, for they do not acknowledge or trust in the Christ -— who, as we are fond of reminding ourselves, is the reason for the season.

Moreover, Christians must ensure that they themselves are not contributing to the “losing of Christmas” to the world. Some might wonder if we have aided in the world’s misunderstanding and mishandling of Christmas by the seemingly dualistic manner in which we often celebrate.

Has the world stolen Christmas from us Christians or have we handed much of it over to them? American Christians are often guilty of joining the secular society that rushes headlong into the month dedicated mostly to the observance of materialism, commercialism, sentimentality and gluttony.

Have we done more harm than good by raising children to be enthralled more with the fantasy of Santa Claus than the reality of Jesus Christ? (For the record, it helps matters not in the least when we position Santa and his elves around the manger in the front yard as if they are worshiping the Christ child together with the shepherds and wise men.) Sadly, too many of us are more focused on the presents under the tree than we are on the baby in the manger.

In the United States, we should certainly be free to exercise our faith, but we must not be offended when the world doesn’t act the way we often wish they would. With all the discussion about Christ being taken out of Christmas, it will do us Christians well to realize that we should never be surprised by how the world behaves.

Isaac Watts reminded us years ago that as we march on to Zion, those who do not know our God will refuse to sing. However, we should never allow their silence, or for this matter, their renaming of things, to muffle the joys which we believers sing at Christmas. Quite the opposite. We should become more intentional in our focus on and commitment to the one whom we celebrate.
Todd E. Brady is minister to the university at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

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