‘Tis the season for the Catholic blogosphere to go ballistic over the War on Christmas – the bus ads from the American Humanists, American Atheists, the Freedom from Religionists et al. and public displays with Christmas themes marred by ludicrous “Festivus poles” and tasteless representations of the “Pastafarian’s Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Then there are the 42 gazillion (I counted) ads on TV, the Internet and in my physical mailbox trading on the birth of Jesus for commercial gain.
The latest outrage is a crude display of an angel falling from the sky into cardboard “flames,” accompanied by Bible verses and the message “Happy Holidays from the Satanic Temple” which has now received “permission” from Florida officials to be erected inside Florida’s Capitol building December 22 through 29. All it took was the threat of a lawsuit from Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United [for Separation of Church and State]. It was reported that “the Satanic Temple describes itself an ‘organized religion’ with a mission to ‘encourage benevolence and empathy among all people.’”
How a depiction of Lucifer falling into the fires of Hell achieves their mission of benevolence and empathy is anyone’s guess.
Initially, I planned on joining the chorus of outrage and edifying readers with a discussion of how the ACLU (on purpose) and the Supreme Court (inadvertently) has caused the ridiculous situation we face today where, for every creche, menorah and Santa’s toy shop display, one has to avert his eyes from the sheer ugliness and mean-spiritedness of graphic statements from pseudo-religions that do not seek to share in the holiday cheer as much as they want to stick a fork in it. Readers will be relieved to have been spared the legal history from Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) and Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) to the present day because othershave covered this admirably. You’re welcome.
And only two weeks ago, I mildly defended the commercialism of Christmas (gift giving is at least motivated by love, generosity and family bonds) when I warned a regular contributor against sounding like a Christmas curmudgeon for having pointed out quite reasonably that we’ve wiped Advent off the calendar and have all but forgotten the “Reason for the season.”
But since then I’ve slipped into a Grinchy mood over the way so many Americans celebrate Advent and Christmas.
One catalyst was the transformation of my suburban Florida neighborhood that takes place annually on the Saturday after Thanksgiving (Thanksgiving Friday being a Solemnity commemorating merchants and their seasonal bargains). By Saturday night, every second lawn was populated with inflatable figures of Santa Claus, snowmen, elves and the like. The Catholic family across the street has a larger-than-average herd (pack? troop?) of inflatable characters that includes Hello Kitty® and a bemused-looking snowman on whom an inflatable puppy is supposedly p**ing, hence his odd “facial” expression. Because nothing says the birth of our Savior quite like a puppy p**ing on a snowman, right?
By day, however, the neighborhood looks like a killing field – all the cheery figures splayed face down in the grass, apparently massacred, but in reality only “deflated” in pre-dawn hours before I step out with Toby, our Brittany spaniel, for his morning walk. He doesn’t seem to care about the carnage, but it’s getting to me.
Another catalyst was watching Rick Steve’s “Christmas in Europe” on PBS.
Some folks I know have been a little smug about Americans’ religiosity compared to that of Europe. It’s common knowledge that religious belief and observance is tragically low over there: Fewer than one-quarter of Italian, German and Spanish adults, and only 13 percent of the French, say that “
religion is very important in their lives.” So, perhaps, Steve and his crew cherry-picked their way on a nostalgia tour of European capitals and small towns. I don’t know.
Here’s what you SEE in Rick Steve’s “Christmas in Europe.” Living nativities in Italian villages. Immense bonfires. People stopping to admire (perhaps even to pray) in front of public nativity scenes carved from natural sources (no plastic Baby Jesus or inflatable camels here) and also no Pastafarian Flying Spaghetti Monsters. Dads taking the kids out to forests to chop down a scrawny looking tree – the kind you see left behind in Home Depot’s tree lot when you wait at least until Gaudete Sunday to buy one, after your parish has long since run out. Once inside the homes, the trees are decorated with mostly homemade ornaments and minimal sparkle. The gifts under the tree are quite modest in number and content. And shopping areas, sometimes festooned with lights and greenery, but with a pace that seems leisurely as if the goal were to introduce the children to the local Christmas traditions and crafts as opposed to dragging them along on mom’s frenzied excursions to shopping malls.
But here’s what you can HEAR over there. Cannons firing from the fortress of Hohensalzburg at midday on Christmas Eve, which the locals have done since the time their forebears believed cannons would ward off the evil spirits that might spoil Christmas. Church bells pealing at midnight. Everywhere songs – families singing Christmas carols (about Jesus!) around the piano after grandpa reads an account of Jesus’ birth from the family Bible, neighbors getting together to carol around town (just like our neighbors did in a St. Louis suburb in the 1950s), groups of instrumental musicians and well-trained girls’ or boys’ or adult choirs giving free concerts of hymns and religious songs in public squares and churches (without being forced to pay equal tribute to Frosty and Rudolph and Grandma who got run over by a reindeer).
Here’s what you can almost SMELL, if only you were there. The aroma of chestnuts roasting over open fires on street corners. The annual blessing of the barn and animals with dad swinging a censer of incense-scented coals (followed by one of the children sprinkling holy water). Baking and decorating Christmas cookies with the kids the old-fashioned way – you can tell because the younger ones are dusted with flour and their faces smeared with frosting). And busy women and children preparing multi-course Christmas feasts of traditional regional dishes with recipes handed down through generations. You won’t find gravy sold in jars or canned cranberry relish in their kitchens.
The third catalyst was looking at the faces of Christians who are being persecuted for their faith. The family of Asia Bibi, who may be killed on orders of a Pakistani court at any moment. Middle East Christians who have fled before the advance of ISIS and who now have nothing left but their lives and their faith. Nigerian Christians terrorized by Boko Haram who face a considerable risk of death simply by attending Mass on Christmas. Recent estimates put the number of churches destroyed by Boko Haram at between 200 and 400. Chinese Christians who are enduring yet another brutal crackdown. These people, I think, are likely preparing for the coming of Jesus in prayer, in faith, in watchfulness, are ready to die for Him should it come to that. Celebrating the coming of Jesus a month early with the excessive consumption and display of comparatively meaningless secular things, would not even occur to them.
In the two weeks remaining, will you pledge to scale back on the pre-Christmas insanity? Get up 15 minutes earlier and give that little time to prepare your heart to make a home for the Savior who is to come … but not yet here! That’s only 1/96th of your day. He’s worth at least that much.
If you have kids of any age, can you pledge right now to curb your extravagance. It’s probably not THEIR birthday. When I was working full-time and had school-aged children, I took a cue from my spendthrift grandmother and heartily indulged them – out of a mixture of love and guilt – telling myself I wanted to make Christmas as “magical” for them as it had been for the child-me. Then I’d spend January trying to figure out which bill could be paid in February without imperiling our credit. Instead of a truckload of gifts, give them a massive amount of your positive attention so that they’ll actually want to be around you when they grow up. I can promise you this: the latest Nintendo game is not going to strengthen your parent-child relationship.
While you’ve got them at home, gather them up for a service activity, like taking chocolates and cookies to the residents of an assisted living home or, together, shoveling a neighbor’s sidewalk and driveway after a snowfall, followed by a treat of ice-skating or bowling or whatever the kids would enjoy doing.
Reread the Gospel infancy narratives as a family and place yourself in the fields with the startled shepherds, in the stall with the Holy Family, in their midst when the Magi arrived.
Add a few extra thoughts to grace before meals, to thank God the Father for the gift of His Son, for faith, for each other, and asking Him to bless those without faith or loved ones at this time of the year.
None of these suggestions requires any great sacrifice of time or money, but if even a small number of Christians were to make these efforts, year after year – to restore Advent to its rightful place and make Christmas again about the birth of Jesus, our Lord and Savior – we’ll find more peace in our homes and our lives, which will prompt others to ask us how they can, too.
And don’t fret unduly about the Satanic Temple or other snarky atheist groups. Public Christmas displays are not Christmas and they won’t lure anyone from the faith. Nothing can spoil Christmas for us except our own misguided ideas about what we “have to do” between Thanksgiving and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God or Epiphany (or the Presentation if you’re hardcore). If you allow Jesus a place in your heart and home, all shall be well.
Susan E. Wills
is a senior writer for Aleteia’s English-language edition.