This holiday season we learned that Christmas has been taken captive by our beloved culture warriors. Bill O'Reilly is famous (or infamous) for his declaration that Christmas in America is under attack. This attack on Christmas is another example of how evangelical Christians are persecuted in America for their faith. As an evangelical (even if a liberal one) I must ask: Who is doing this persecution?
Evangelical Christians now control all three branches of the federal government and also hold positions of power in most state governments. Evangelicals were behind the box office success of Mel Gibson's religious snuff film The Passion of the Christ and have their own media empires. Anyone who is not an evangelical Christian must, after seeing the political, fiscal and cultural power accumulated by evangelicals, feel at least a little bit threatened. Far from removing religion from the public sphere as many "persecuted" evangelicals claim, America is creeping toward a frightening theocracy. Sure this theocracy is more a de facto than de juro development, but that must be cold comfort to the many Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, atheists and agnostics in America.
But, the argument goes, evangelicals are being persecuted for their religious beliefs, which are scoffed at by the majority of Americans. One example of this persecution, which is part of the secularization of America, is that in polite (or politically correct) society the phrase "Merry Christmas" is being exchanged (like an unwanted gift) for "Happy Holidays".
Stephen Nissenbaum, historian and author of The Battle for Christmas, reminds us of the origins of "Merry Christmas," the phrase which is evidentially under attack by the demons of political correctness who keep liberalizing and secularizing America. The word "merry" came into use in "merry old England" in roughly the time of Shakespeare. In England of the 16th century there were two days which were considered "merry"; Christmas and May Day. On May Day, of course, people would dance around a giant fallic symbol and then go copulate in the woods, so what do you think "merry" means?
A 17th century English language dictionary claims that "drunk" is "a polite term for what most men mean by 'merry'." To "make merry" is, essentially to get wildly drunk and then act recklessly, often sexually. Merriment is not for the pious or virtuous.
Christmas was, when it was "merry," quite merry in deed. Nissenbaum quotes a prominent figure in the Anglican church of the 17th century as saying that more sins are committed in the 12 days of Christmas than in the rest of the twelve months of the year combined. But this merriment was not limited to merry old England. Christmas was so "merry" in the "New Land" that many of the Puritan colonies outlawed it because it was irreligious.
I have noted here before that Christmas was not a celebrated in the early church. This is in part because the scriptures do not tell us when Jesus was born, and in part because the early church was more focused on the scandal of the cross and the celebrated mystery of the Easter resurrection. Christmas was eventually celebrated, but more for cultural than religious reasons, and its celebration today is still very secular in nature.
There is no new "war on Christmas." There is only the never ending war - as old as religion itself - between the secular and the sacred. This war is fought within religions, denominations, congregations, cultures, states and individuals. There is nothing in this world which is purely sacred, as everything has in some way been profaned or corrupted. But, because everything has been inspired directly or indirectly by God, nothing is entirely secular, either.
The now sacred phrase "Merry Christmas" has, as we have seen, its bawdy origins. The apparently secular phrase "Happy Holidays" (the bane of Bill O'Reilly and other self-righteous, hypocritical culture warriors) also contains something of the sacred, as it reminds us that some days are made "holy" ("holiday" = "holy day"), to be set aside for God. So, even though it is past Christmas, let us not forget to "make merry" this season, while also setting aside some time to happily be holy.
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