December Dilemma Watch 2007

As I bring this year’s December Dilemma Watch to a close, I have to say that 2007 will not go down as a banner year in the history of the Christmas wars. There were no freedom-of-religion (or freedom-from-religion) lawsuits that grabbed national headlines, no flood of boycotts of major retailers because those stores wished people “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” no barrage of books and specials hosted by television news commentators decrying the tragic decline of the rights of religious people in America.
Could it be that the days of such squabbles are behind us?
Probably not–for two reasons. One is that those who want to fan flames can always find flames to fan; even this year, there was, as you’ve read in this blog, a smattering of holiday struggles. The second is that a new iteration of the December Dilemma arose this year, and it is not likely to disappear in Decembers to come.
This new debate is less about the rights of Americans to practice their faith in public, and more about the spiritual implications of an American consumer culture that feels to many to be directly at odds with the religious meaning of the December holidays.
Jews have witnessed the festival of Hanukkah, which celebrates the resistance to assimilation of Judah Maccabee and his army, transform into a holiday that resembles Christmas in the proliferation of themed decorations and gift-giving. But for Christians, the issue hits even deeper, because unlike Hanukkah, Christmas is a major religious festival, one of the most significant of the Christian liturgical year.
The holiday is celebrated with the language of giving, but many Christians feel disappointed that the concept of lovingly offering a gift as a way to connect to a friend or family member, not to mention the larger idea of giving of yourself to make the world a better place, is easily lost amid the marketing campaigns that suggest that an electronic gadget or expensive bauble is the true spirit of the season.
And this is where the December Dilemma has landed. Very few people want to give up altogether, in the name of being more “spiritual,” the fun of holiday gift-giving, not to mention party hosting, card sending, and house decorating. Nor should they–these traditions are the stuff of memories for families and communities. But many are wrestling with the idea of how much is “enough,” how they can slow down their lives to truly connect with the reason for the celebration, and how they can re-infuse meaning into this sacred time of year.
What a valuable conversation to have, and what a relief from the rancor of previous years’ Christmas wars. In those quarters, all is calm, all is bright for Christmas 2007. But may 2008 continue to bring out more insightful, more thoughtful conversations about not only how we practice religion in our free society, but why we do.

Yesterday, published this column by commentator Roland Wilson, in which he makes the argument that Americans should “return to traditional values, and end this ridiculous charade” of stripping Christmas of its religious meaning.
To longtime observers of the December Dilemma, Wilson’s essay appears to conflate two classic problems that many conservative Christians assert. One is that our secular society discourages Christians from publicly sharing their faith (the insistence on wishing people “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas). The other is the behavior of many Christians, who both literally and figuratively buy into the secular Christmas culture and focus on gifts and shopping rather than on prayer, reflection, and quality time with family.
Of course, there is a connection between these two issues – Christians are subject to the power of marketing just like everyone else, and in some ways, the widespread idea among advertisers that December is a time for you to spend money can’t coexist with the idea that Christmas is a holiday about giving of yourself, not of your wallet.
But all the same, Wilson’s essay would have been stronger had it focused only on the latter issue, as he does when he says, “It’s important that we take a fuller account of WHY we celebrate Christmas, as opposed to falling for the barrage of ads that tell us what is most important.” Because even Bill O’Reilly has declared victory in the war against “Happy Holidays,” a sure signal that it’s consumerism, not interfaith confusion, that’s the real issue of the day.
Do you agree? Please share your views in the comments area.

This week, at least 12 residents of Santa Clarita, California discovered something missing from the nativity scenes they had put up in their front yards–the baby Jesus. In place of the baby, according to Los Angeles’ KNBC News, the thieves left a note that read, “Do not worry for baby Jesus is not gone, yet he is just not born, yet.”
The statues were indeed not gone, but instead were placed at the foot of a statue of the Virgin Mary at the nearby Our Lady of Perpetual Help church, baffling Msgr. Paul Montoya. “I’m not too sure if it’s a young person’s prank. We’re not sure why they would do this,” he said.
Perhaps the thieves were trying to reinforce the practice among many Catholics of not putting baby Jesus into the manger until the day of his birth, Christmas Eve?
Please feel free to share your opinion on when baby Jesus should be placed in the manger.

According to Catholic World News, the Vatican has changed its tradition of erecting a Nativity scene of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in a manger in Bethlehem, instead putting up a scene of the holy family in their home in Nazareth. The Vatican has put up a creche since Pope John Paul II instituted the tradition in 1982.
The scene, as always, will not be unveiled until Christmas Eve.