Here in the Bible Belt, it’s not uncommon for people to think that saying “Merry Christmas” — as opposed to “Happy Holidays” — somehow recovers the true meaning of the season. But this is hardly the case.
I don’t say this as a nihilistic cultured despiser of religion. I say it as a Christian pastor who very much loves the Christmas season and wants to recover all that it means.
The phrase “Merry Christmas,” on its own, expresses a beautiful sentiment of well wishes for others. It can be understood as a shorthand way of saying, “I hope the birth of Christ brings you hope, peace, joy, and love,” which are the Advent promises.
But here’s the thing. Nowadays, the phrase “Merry Christmas” gets used in very different ways, with very different connotations. Instead of saying that one hopes the birth of Christ brings hope, peace, joy and love to others (including those outside the Christian faith), it’s frequently weaponized. It’s fallen victim to the incessant culture wars that mark the increasingly surreal landscape of existence in modern day America. “Merry Christmas” has morphed into a positioning statement that has more to do with establishing one’s identity in the culture (usually as a conservative Christian) than in expressing what one hopes for others living in the culture (whether they identify as conservative Christians or not).
What’s more, “Merry Christmas” is often delivered as an opening salvo to anyone who dares challenge the power and dominance of the Religious Right in the history and culture of the United States. Instead of being connected to what the biblical stories about the birth of Christ actually say, this phrase is unplugged from the biblical tradition; it’s become a shorthand way of thumbing one’s nose at those who don’t celebrate Christmas (even though most non-Christians in the U.S., who comprise less than thirty percent of the population, are not in the least bit offended by those who do celebrate Christmas).
It’s cheap rhetoric. After all, it’s much easier to say “Merry Christmas” than to actually care about what the birth stories teach. It’s much easier to wage culture wars in the name of religion than to actually live by the principles at the heart of the Christmas narratives. It’s much easier to put up nativity scenes, even with big letters that spell “Jesus,” than to follow the way of Christ.
Much of the rhetoric surrounding “Merry Christmas” serves as a mask for avoiding the deeper implications of Jesus’ birth and what it means for us today.
Let’s not forget that Jesus and his family were refugees fleeing violence (recall Herod’s massacre of the infants and the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, as recorded in the gospel of Matthew). Yet in our culture today — in a cruel stroke of irony — it’s the Religious Right that is most hostile to refugees fleeing violence. In fact, conservative Christians in the U.S. represent the largest demographic that supports policies that tear gas refugees and place them in cages. Until we repent from sanctioning such inhumane policies, we can’t begin to say that we take the Christmas stories seriously. You can choose to support such inhumane policies all you want — that offense is on you — but you can’t claim to honor the meaning of Christmas when doing so.
If we wish to conserve the true meaning of Christmas — if we wish to be conservative in our reading of the biblical stories — we must remember that the birth of Christ was never about dominant groups using their religion to discriminate against others. Quite the opposite. Jesus and the Holy Family were marginalized from the beginning by the most dominant groups in society. Contrary to what Stephen Miller and the Trump administration may think, Jesus didn’t do the oppressing. It was the other way around. As O Holy Night recalls, in Christ’s name “all oppression shall cease” — not be amplified.
When reflecting on the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, as well as the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt and the Magi’s visit to them, theologian Carlos Rodriguez summarizes the Christmas stories in a way that would come as an unwelcome surprise to the Religious Right:
“Christmas is about believing what a woman said about her sex life. Christmas is about finding safety as asylum seekers. Christmas is about a child receiving support from the wealthy. Christmas is about God identifying with the marginalized, not the powerful.”
If we wish to offer a Merry Christmas to others, then we at least need to have the courage to honor what the stories actually say. Otherwise it is we, the Christians, who are the true cultured despisers of religion – because we know what the stories say but we refuse to acknowledge them in order to serve our own self-interested goals. Which is the ultimate form of nihilism.