A Merry Public Christmas

So if local, state, or national government can help us put God and God's commandments front and center, then hooray. My neighbors' souls and the quality of their lives might depend on seeing the Baby Jesus lying in a crèche at Christmas.

But is it appropriate to force our neighbors to celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday? Should my call to manifest the love of God to them be public or private? Institutional or personal?

If my neighbors are not Christian -- or if they belong to other faiths -- will my insistence that everyone partake of these public displays of Jesus be edifying to them? My own experience as a person outside of faith suggests not. Pushy neighbors didn't encourage me toward their points of view. If anything, pushiness pushed me away.

And this is also true about forced secularism too, isn't it? If I force your community to stop celebrating Christmas in a certain way because I am a person who feels myself liberated from repressive notions of religion -- or who doesn't want to impose my own ideas about faith on someone else -- doesn't that also suggest that you will be antagonistic toward my big-hearted impulses?

I think here is where we wind up when we come at Christmas in the public square faithfully instead of from political or cultural views: When either side tries to enforce its views about Christmas, it is a losing proposition.

So if a community's consensus is truly that it's a source of civic pride to decorate the town for Christmas -- and I mean by that a true consensus, and not one forced on them -- then, to my surprise, I don't see why outsiders should consider it shameful. There are towns in the Texas Hill Country that set themselves ablaze with lights to celebrate Christmas, and while I haven't spoken to every single soul, I have talked to enough who consider it a wondrous community-building gift to each other and the world.

On the other hand, I think that to mandate that communities and institutions continue to celebrate the Christian holiday when they have no passion for or sacred understanding of it serves no real good. In post-Christian Britain, for example, the Christmas pageant depicted in Love Actually actually does feature more than one lobster at the birth of Jesus.

And an octopus, if memory serves.

But they don't know or care much about the actual Nativity.

Being compelled by legislation or custom to continue serving up a tradition that has been shorn of its sacred meanings and is merely cute or quaint doesn't draw people toward the God Christians see at the center of the holiday. Insisting that people say "Merry Christmas" won't make people believe what we believe about Christmas any more than putting up a crèche on the courthouse lawn will.

But maybe embodying the things we believe about Christmas -- and about Christ -- would.

Maybe by loving instead of judging, giving instead of demanding, and stepping back instead of rushing forward, Christians could restore some real measure of Christmas magic to the season.

That is, at least, my fervent hope for this season.

Check back every Thursday for the latest from Faithful Citizenship, a regular column by Greg Garrett at the Mainline Protestant Portal.

12/9/2010 5:00:00 AM
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    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.