Thoughts in Grayscale

Christmas Privilege

Fri, 22 Dec 2017 19:52:09 GMT

Union Square, San Francisco — by Joshua Boucher

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. I love the lights and music and festivities. I’m the kind of person who feels sad when the decorations come down or when I have to take down my Christmas tree. But my love of Christmas comes from the religious significance it has for me as a Christian.

There has been much talk about a “War on Christmas.” Some people express outrage about everything from store employees saying “happy holidays” to the design of coffee cups. Depending on who you listen to, saying Merry Christmas in America was unofficially outlawed until recently. As somewhat of a learned Christian, I think I have an interesting take on this: I don’t see a “war” at all. What I see is a misunderstanding of privilege and consideration.

First off, the “War on Christmas” is nothing new. When I was young the “War” was centered on the need to “keep Christ in Christmas.” Some people were outraged at the practice of abbreviating Christmas as “Xmas” because it was seen as a direct, insidious effort to remove Christ’s primacy in the holiday and to turn it into a generic celebration.

In Greek the word Christ is written as Χριστός. The X has been used as an abbreviation by Christians and scribes since the 16th century. My Greek teacher used to say something along the lines of “those who write Xmas are just trying to get back to the Greek.” It’s also worth noting that the word Christ or Χριστός is a title and not a name, a translation of the Hebrew messiah (מָשִׁיחַ), anointed one.

Another component of this “War on Christmas” is the use of the phrase “happy holidays.” The plurality and vagueness of the statement is cited as a direct attempt to deemphasize Christmas or attack the Christian faith. But there are some practical things to consider before drawing such conclusions.

First, let’s consider the actual date of celebration. In America we celebrate Christmas on December 25th. Some eastern Christians celebrate it on January 7th according to the Gregorian calendar. Some Armenian Christians celebrate it on either January 6th or January 19th. The point is we really don’t know exactly when Jesus was born. In seminary I heard arguments that Jesus was born in the month of March or April or even May. Historically speaking it’s likely that December 25th was chosen to compete or replace existing Roman or pagan festivals, though this too is up for debate.

There is also a truly practical consideration that in America between November and January, multiple holidays occur within a short time period. For many individuals this can be further compounded by birthdays, anniversaries, and other personal events. Saying “happy holidays” seems quite appropriate in this context. It’s also a nice way for someone who isn’t Christian or religious to give a friendly greeting to someone who is. I find myself using both phrases somewhat interchangeably. It also makes sense to me that stores and businesses would use inclusive phrases like this, since they serve multifaceted communities. Just because a cashier or clerk wishes me “Happy Holidays!” does not mean I cannot reply “Merry Christmas!” in return. It is simply a matter of consideration.

As a Christian I appreciate the fact that one of my religion’s highest holy days is celebrated as a national holiday in my country. But I also try to be considerate to people who hold different religious beliefs in light of the privileged position of the holiday of my faith. Not everyone is going to observe my religion’s holiday in the same manner I do, just as I do not observe holidays of other religions in the same way as those who practice those faiths.

The other important reality to consider is that the Christmas season can be a very difficult time for some people. Consider a person who is alone. In a time when people think of family and significant others, this isolation is magnified. Or maybe the opposite is true. Maybe Christmas means having to spend time with a judgmental parent or a difficult relative. Perhaps it means fights about politics and perspectives and what you should be doing with your life. Consider those who have recently lost a loved one. For many who plan holidays around family, the absence of the departed is palpable. For these reasons I can understand and sympathize with those who find the Christmas season difficult. I’ve been on both sides of every one of these scenarios. As much as I love Christmas, I also have to handle the pain and difficulty brought and amplified by the holiday.

Rather than seeing my religious holiday as somehow under attack because there are other people who don’t observe it (or don’t observe it the way I do), I choose to focus on the fact that Christmas has a privileged position amongst religious holidays. Acknowledging that privilege, I strive to carry myself with grace and consideration for others. This is the best way I can think of to honor the teachings of the person at the center of this holiday.

I also see that Christmas has significance even for those who do not observe the holiday religiously. This makes me happy. I’m thrilled that people of different beliefs and backgrounds can potentially find something joyful or positive from the holiday of my religion, tidings of peace and goodwill if you will. You could say this is the spirit of Christ at work in the world.

My encouragement to those of us who celebrate the birth of Jesus is this: rather than loudly demanding that everyone should celebrate, remember why YOU celebrate. May that drive you to focus on being a bearer of good news, love, joy, and peace. Be gracious to those who do not celebrate, and be mindful to those who struggle with sadness and grief in this season. Choose to see the privilege that the Christmas holiday is given, and let that free you to be gracious and considerate as an expression of your celebration. May your Christmas be merry and meaningful.

Joshua Boucher

Written by Joshua Boucher, a seminary graduate who lives and works in San Francisco. You can find him on Twitter.