Do they know it’s Christmas?

Posted: Dec 23, 2005 12:05 AM

As always, Bono was ahead of his time.

Back in 1984, he and Sting teamed up with other British pop stars to form the group Band Aid. Their classic song, “Do they know it’s Christmas?” includes the lyrics: “And it’s a world of dread and fear/Where the only water flowing is/The bitter sting of tears/And the Christmas bells that are ringing/Are clanging chimes of doom.”

 That was then. These days it’s those on the right who are gripped by dread and fear and are ringing the chimes of doom -- for the future of Christmas itself.

 Of course, the demise of the planet’s best known holiday seems unlikely. But some are getting restless about the secularization of Christmas. For them, the simmering pot of eggnog came to a full boil when they received a card from the White House wishing them a happy “holiday season” rather than a Merry Christmas.
President Bush “claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian. But he sure doesn’t act like one,” the editor of the conservative Web site told The Washington Post. “I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it.”
Others agreed the card sends the wrong holiday message. “This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture,” huffed William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

 Really? Is inclusiveness one of the “worst elements” in our culture? After all, the card went out to more than a million people. Some of them aren’t Christian and won’t be celebrating Christmas. It’s certainly reasonable to include these people with a generic holiday greeting. Besides, the card contained a bible verse (an Old Testament verse, Donohue sniffed), and that’s certainly good enough to remind everyone that Christmas is a religious holiday.

 Those who are worried about the secularization of Christmas have a point, but the people who most need to be reminded that we’re in a holy season may well be churchgoers. If there’s a threat to the sacred Christian nature of Christmas, it may be coming from Christians themselves. Consider the recent stories about megachurches that will cancel services on Christmas Day this year, since it falls on a Sunday this year. Talk about missing the point.
There seems to be a movement afoot in divinity schools to emphasize Easter -- the day Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead -- and to play down Christmas -- the day He was born.

 The four Sundays before Christmas are called Advent, and they’re supposed to be dedicated to waiting. But there are churchgoers who are still waiting for their congregation to sing a good Christmas carol. In my church, the great ones all seem to have been pushed back to Christmas Eve, leaving parishioners to slog through the droning ones.

On one level this makes sense. It’s the victory over the grave and subsequent forgiveness of sins that really matters to Christians. That’s why the Easter story is told in all four gospels, while only two bother to mention the details of Jesus’ birth.

Still, you can’t build up one holiday by tearing down another. There’s room in the calendar for more than one major holiday. So, while the church should indeed highlight Easter, playing down Christmas is not the way to do that.

Meanwhile, our “competitors” in the secular world aren’t going to sit back and allow Christians to de-emphasize Christmas. They can’t afford to. Stores spend all year losing money, just so they can turn the corner and earn a profit with their Christmas sales. The needs of the retail world guarantee Christmas will remain a secular holiday fixture.

But religious people shouldn’t be willing to hand the future of Christmas over to the secular world. It’s a traditional Christian holiday, and it should remain critical to us as that -- the second holiest day of the year. The best way to hold on to it is to really celebrate it -- with singing and glad tidings.

Meanwhile, if the secular world wants to have a battle with itself over the meaning of Christmas trees, Christmas cards, Christmas sales and Christmas pageants, so be it. None of that has anything to do with religion.

In the words of Band Aid, “Let them know it’s Christmastime,” by celebrating. That’ll keep the Christmas bells ringing -- for the right reason -- for decades to come.