It seems to happen every year about this time – maybe a little earlier each year.
Out of respect for the religious diversity of its clientele, a retailer directs its sales people and cashiers to offer a generic “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
A town decides not to place its traditional manger scene on the courthouse lawn in a gesture of recognition to the First Amendment.
A school will help its students mark the season with “holiday parties” rather than “Christmas parties,” with, of course, a “holiday tree.”
The response has become quite predictable. Well-meaning people lament the “war on Christmas.” Have you heard the ditty: “If I don’t see ‘Merry Christmas’ in your window, I won’t be shopping at your store”?
Petitions are launched challenging the “political correctness” of shifting the spirit of the holidays away from its Christian roots, as if our runaway consumerism hasn’t already done a pretty good job of that.
This year’s Christmas “skirmish of the year” award goes to Starbucks’ red cups.
The coffee giant’s disciples barely slowed their morning “devotions” long enough to make the case that the presence or absence of symbols on a cup do not constitute or challenge the meaning of Christmas.
We might wonder what next year’s spark for this annual flash fire will be, but we can probably assume there will be one.
We might also wonder if the fact that it happens at all be a symptom of a deeper problem in our thinking about the relation of faith to the ordinary routines of our society’s life.
The challenges of a rapidly changing culture produce a wide range of religious responses.
Some embrace the changes and experience in them a liberation from oppressive thought patterns and systems that have been sanctioned by earlier frameworks.
Others resist the changes, feel disrespected for doing so and become hypersensitive to actions that are perceived and experienced as attacks.
When symbols that have been vehicles of meaning for a long time are removed from their traditional places or replaced by less specific ones, there is an understandable sense of loss for those who have not thought about how those symbols might be seen through other lenses.
That sense of loss is easily fanned into anger by the demagoguery that has learned to capitalize on it for recognition, fame or fortune.
It seems that Christians are particularly vulnerable to this experience, as the dominance of Christian symbols and orientations has gradually diminished by an increasing religious pluralism in our culture.
Modification to a privileged dominance is easily experienced by the privileged ones as an attack, whether in the arena of religious acceptance or economic justice.
But if Christians are particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon (we don’t hear news outlets calling out a “war on Hanukkah” or a “war on Ramadan”), there may also be a feature of Christian faith that offers a response to it that could be quite redemptive and restorative to community in our diverse society.
If Christmas is the celebration of “incarnation” – the “Word becoming flesh” as a disclosure of the nature and character of the God of all being – it would seem that the primary celebration of that would be a way of living rather than a particular pattern of symbols or rituals.
Symbols are important, of course, but primarily as pointers and vehicles of something more profound. When the focus is limited to the symbol itself, it loses its power as that pointer and vehicle.
Maybe if we worried a little less about “putting Christ in Christmas” the way that appeal is usually made, and a little more about “being Christ at Christmas” (and other times), our incarnational message would be a little clearer to the world around us, near and far.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.