When I was about eight years old my mother explained holiday greetings to me. It was simple. If someone is Christian, say "Merry Christmas". If someone is Jewish, "Happy Hanukkah" is appropriate. And if you don't know, "Happy Holidays" or "Happy New Year" always work.
For my mom it wasn't about political correctness or hatred of Christmas. Far from it. It was about being polite, having good manners, and respecting the fact that my religious beliefs were not shared by everyone. It made sense to me at age eight, and it makes sense to me now as an ordained Christian minister whose favorite time of year is Christmas.
But every year I hear about some Christians who interpret the "Happy Holidays" greeting given to them at stores to mean that there is a full-on, multi-front war against their faith. I find it ironic that the person checking out their big screen TV on Black Friday somehow is thought to have some power to destroy Christmas. But even so, some Christians are absolutely livid about the fact that we no longer keep Christ in Christmas, and (in their perception anyway) no longer keep Christmas at center stage this time of year.
What they fail to understand is that culture didn't remove Christ from Christmas. We Christians did. We accepted the transformation of Advent, the period from late November until December 24th, from a time of holy watching and waiting to one of hyper-consumerism and cultural observances. So much so that when we go to a big box store and don't hear "Merry Christmas" we see it as an attack on our faith instead of the rightful separation of the commercial from the spiritual.
But there are still those who believe Christmas is under attack. I think they're right. But I don't think stores who have "holiday sales" are the attackers. I don't think it's towns that remove Nativity scenes from parks. I don't believe it's public schools that insist that Jewish and Muslim and Buddhist kids not be asked to sing songs affirming a faith different from their own.
I believe the greatest attack on Christmas has come from within. It has come from those of us who claim our greatest hope comes from the fact that God became a person of goodness, kindness, justice, and love. And who then act nothing like that person did.
And so here is my suggestion to Christians about how to keep Christ in Christmas: this season, worry less about the holiday policies of non-religious institutions, and worry more about whether we are actually listening to, and then doing, what Christ told us to do. In short, keep Christ in Christmas by acting like Christians.
I've always found the Beatitudes a good place to start. When Jesus called his followers up to a hill and preached to them, he told them who the "blessed" were; the ones whom God has looked with favor upon and will grant joy. The ones Christ calls blessed are often the same ones we as a culture are the quickest to condemn or criticize. We blame them for their own situation, and we refuse to help them. We somehow forget that when God became incarnate and preached a sermon about who was most blessed by God, these are the ones who were named: the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the peacemakers, the merciful, the mourners, the pure in heart, the gentle. If Christmas is about the incarnation of God, and this is what God incarnate saw fit to tell us, then this is the ultimate Christmas message.
But over the last year, how many examples have there been of Christians who could care less who God has called blessed? How many times has a Christian told a hungry man to get a job? How many times has one told a poor woman that she just needs to work harder? How many times has a Christian ridiculed the gentle or the merciful? Called the ethical naive? Mocked the peacemaker or the one who calls for justice?
How many times have we told God by our actions that we could care less what Christmas means? Because if we don't take seriously the words of the man that that baby born on Christmas came to be, we have no idea what it means to keep Christ in Christmas.
It's not the "Holiday Tree" out in a public park that makes me think Christ has been forgotten. It's the ability we Christians have this time of year to confess our faith in one breath, and then be breathtakingly small-minded or just plain mean in the next.
It doesn't have to be that way. On December 26th the red faced commentators will turn to a new target, the stores will slash their prices, and the carols will end. The cries that there is a "war on Christmas" will be packed up with the ornaments.
But the teachings of Christ won't be. They'll be here all year.
Next year I'd love to hear the rhetoric around a "war on Christmas" change its focus from intolerance for other beliefs, to concern about how we Christians have lived by those teachings in last year. Did we follow the Prince of Peace? Or did we wage a war that has nothing to do with what he taught us? Next December I'd like us to realize that keeping Christ in Christmas has nothing to do with what others choose to do, and everything to do with who we choose to be.
If we can change that focus, then what the cashier says at the checkout won't threaten our Christmas joy one bit.
Follow Rev. Emily C. Heath on Twitter: www.twitter.com/calledoutrev