Manger Arbitration

November 29, 2007 | By | 16 Replies More

It’s that time of year again, when we gear up for the rewards (or disappointments) promised in our celebrations of the Yule Season. Christmas Time! Days of saccharine movies, maudlin songs, a hope for fluffy white snowfall that is somehow miraculously easy to drive through and falls only on grassy areas, and the group psych-up to the kind of good cheer and fellow-feeling that it wouldn’t kill us to feel a bit of all year round. Time for the Peanuts Christmas Special, anticipation of another day of overeating, getting together with people, some of whom we never see for the rest of the year, and an almost forced sincerity.

Don’t get me wrong, I think a lot of this is great stuff. Christmas when I was a child was magic, and if we require visual and aural mnemonic cues to trigger some of that long ago wonderfulness, what harm? Personally, I don’t like It’s A Wonderful Life, but I do like the Peanuts cartoon–even if I’m not a christian, it says something important about the lost meaning of Christmas. My favorite Christmas song is Emerson Lake & Palmer’s I Believe In Father Christmas, but I have to confess that the dynamics of some of those old carols really get to me. Music works regardless of the adapted message and the people who wrote those understood human response to awe and joy.

And the presents! My word, if ever there was a season in which material gain has achieved the level of virtue, it’s Christmas.


(You knew there’d be a but. Of course. So here it is.)

A couple remarks to my last post and Dan’s piece on A Christian Nation caused me to do a little rethinking. I linked Christmas to an unhealthy preoccupation with religious issues. I should clarify, and while I’m at it make a recommendation.

I believe the insistence that our public institutions be made to reflect our world view is perfectly understandable, natural, a human thing. But how can that happen when we don’t all agree on what that view is? This seems like a no-brainer to me.

States in the south have been made to remove any emblems of the Confederacy from their public symbols and buildings. Many people in those states see this as a violation of their right to express their view. As far as it goes, they have a point.

The place where the contention begins is in what that view actually is. Most of the rest of the country see the Confederate flag as, among other things, a symbol of racism and slavery. For the people in Mississippi and Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas, and so forth, it is a symbol of States Rights and an unwillingness to bend to federalism. (Pretty much where is broke in the Civil War, in fact—most southerners, the vast majority, did not own slaves, and probably many of them didn’t care for the institution, but they really resented the North telling them how to live.) This may be splitting hairs, but on slimmer details catastrophes have occurred.

How does this relate to Christmas? Very simply. The reality of Christmas is that it has become a secular holiday. I don’t care what the iconography implies, Christmas is a time of family reunion, generosity, good food, and a celebration of what we consider best in each other. In m opinion, that’s pretty spiritual. After all, the actual meaning of the New Testament story has been transmogrified by our community needs into an idealized representation of what it means to Do Good Unto Each Other. We don’t need to believe in a deity to Get That.

And it hasn’t been about salvation for a long time. The essential religious message, for better or worse, has been “revised” into a secular message that basically comes down to “You done all right for a year now, it’s time to set aside being Scrooge and enjoy Giving.”

No one doesn’t get that. And for most of us, that’s what all the lights and the trees and the holly and the mistletoe and, yes, even the manger scenes is all about. Mary didn’t get a baby shower, so the Wise Men show up to give the kid a Good Start. The meaning is abstracted out by decades of ritual celebration so that the underlying theological message is, well, optional.

On that basis, we really shouldn’t get all bent out of shape over some Christmas decorations in or on or around public facilities. We risk becoming institutional Scrooges by standing on the letter of the law here.

The problem, though, is for those people who insist that what most of us see as the “meaning of Christmas” (whether we consciously recognize it or not) is in Error, the issue isn’t over the decorations but what they insist the decorations mean. (It’s not over slavery, it’s States Rights.) And our response…

Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Because when confronted by what we think Christmas means, a lot of people waffle. When pressed, they realize that what Charlie Brown rails against every year as the Commercialization of Christmas is kind of cheap and sordid. It’s not that they don’t believe that that’s what Christmas is, but that they don’t want it to mean that. They get embarrassed into admitting that, yeah, it’s the religious message that’s important, isn’t it?

And as soon as they admit that, the trouble begins and we’re in court arguing about removing another manger scene from in front of City Hall.

To paraphrase (or butcher) the Bard, Coal In The Stockings of Both Your Houses!

The commercial element will be there no matter what. That’s inevitable since it is, as they say, a time of giving.

What the manger represents in my mind is, today, a representation of the Ideal Family being visited by those who wish it well, strangers bearing gifts to the less fortunate, or to those who have special reason to celebrate. It does represent a kind of peace motif. It has become something other than its original intention. We have made it so, and that symbol is not a bad thing.

The tree was never a Christian symbol in the first place, nor most of the rest of it. Christmas is one of the most retrofitted, adaptive holidays we have, which is why it has clung to our cultural fabric so long and so strongly.

But it is, as such, secular.

This makes it like school prayer. A moment of silence to allow students to indulge their faiths is not an endorsement of a particular religion, but an acknowledgment that people have faith. But it’s their business. People privately will take what meaning they want from the symbols of Christmas—that’s the nature of symbols—while publicly we acknowledge the Community Message of the holiday. Once a year we try to recover what joy we found as children wrapped in the warmth of a group celebration that revolved around Giving. Giving of gifts, sure, but also of time, of attention, of love, or consideration, of Presence.

Christmas is not a Christian holiday except for those who choose to see it as such. It is Our Holiday, whatever world view we might hold. We’ve made it that way. The main character for Christmas to us is not Jesus, but Santa Claus. If I choose to explain this by saying that he was one of the Three Wise Men, that’s as valid a notion as any other. (I don’t, actually, but you see what I mean.)

So my solution for this silliness is to urge people to simply accept Christmas for what it has become and stop insisting that it must be Something Else for everyone. Once we publicly acknowledge that Christmas is a secular holiday—and that we’re okay with that—we can stop inflicting our petty religious-driven politics on everyone else and get to the thing that’s most important.

Being together.


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Category: American Culture, Civil Rights, Communication, Consumerism, Culture, Current Events, History, Meaning of Life, Politics, Religion, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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  1. Christmas Brings Out The… | Dangerous Intersection | November 19, 2008
  1. Amen brother! Those who have read my posts know that I am an avowed agnostic and disdain the trappings of religion. And yet…I LOVE Christmastime!!

    I agree with you, Christmas should be seen as a secular holiday. The festivities, decorations and good feelings that come with them are not the sole property of Christians. A Christmas tree is beautiful and heartwarming whether or not you believe that it celebrates the birth of someone who promised that our essence will live on after we die.

    I still get a tear in my eye at the climax of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special when Linus, standing in a spotlight, quotes from the Bible. Despite its fantastical, questionable source, spoken by angels in the sky, the sentiment of the quotation is a worthy one.

    Peace and goodwill towards all people. Who wouldn't want that?

  2. Vicki Baker says:

    Obviously, sentimental hearts beat under some of the rugged free-thinking exteriors around here!

    Personally, I think Christmas has never been the same since the first War on Christmas waged by the Puritans in the 1600's. We need to bring back the real "old tyme" traditions of public intoxication, orgies, cross-dressing, and forced redistribution of wealth. This Christe-masse, consider electing a Lord of Misrule to lead a mob attack on the homes of the rich and famous!

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    On his “700 Club” show Nov. 15 [2007], Robertson pointed out that Christmas trees "come from Teutonic Paganism".

    Read Has TV preacher Pat Robertson joined the “War on Christmas”?

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Oh, hell. Since everyone else is confessing, I too like some aspects of Christmas. I have been known to play and sing Christmas carols. I do like the comraderie. I like the reminder to catch up with people I haven't seen enough over the past year. I like to assume that it might snow, though it no longer seems to snow in Saint Louis. I like to think that the holiday season is a chance to step off of the treadmill and reflect on what's important, but what is important (to me) is not the out-of-control purchase of Christmas gifts (I admit that I buy gifts for my immediate family, my wife and two children).

    I really don't like planned gift-giving, however. I do like to give gifts, but I like to do it when others don't expect them at all. For many people Christmas gift-giving is a season to EXPECT gifts, not just to give them. I can't help but think of Jesus coming back to Earth (if he ever lived here), noticing the hyperactive marketing of so many useless things IN HIS NAME, and becoming enraged enough that he starts firebombing stores with the same rage he allegedly displayed when he saw all that commercial activity in the temple . . .

  5. gatomjp says:

    I laughed when I read that you like to sing Christmas carols, Erich! Me too! I especially love the mysterious minor mode of We Three Kings.

    The basic ideas of the Christmas season are good, just like the basic lessons that Jesus was trying to teach were good. Human beings have a peculiar propensity to distort and pervert things. A few gifts here and there, some twinkling lights, a glass of wine with friends, these are all things we can and DO enjoy!

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    One song I really enjoy is "I heard the Bells on Christmas Day." I'm trying to figure out how to attach the arrangment I developed . . .

  7. I can't let a Christmas season pass without listening to Vince Guaraldi's score to A Charlie Brown Christmas at least once. I suggest that if any of you like that music, please seek out other Vince Guaraldi recordings. He was a great jazz pianist and much more than just a composer of cartoon scores.

  8. Ben says:

    The Little Drummer Boy…

    Pa- rum pum pum- pummm

  9. Dan Klarmann says:

    Linus and Lucy theme: <a rel="nofollow" target="_blank" href="">(midi file)

    Always a favorite. But my family always sang along with Tom Lehrer's <a rel="nofollow" href="">A Christmas Carol after listening to an album of German carols like "Kling Glöckchen" and "Stille Nacht".

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    For an arguably related post–concerning non-believers who enjoy going to church–see here:

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    Mark: your post bore fruit for me tonight. I was strolling through Macy's tonight, feeling a bit "territorial" about what others are doing to Christmas. Then I recalled your post, which made it easier to live and let live. Christmas is a big tent–er, manger.

    H.L.A. Hart wrote about the concept of a "park," demonstrating that it too is a big tent. We all agree that we want parks and that parks are important. Once we get a park, though, we have massive disagreements about how to use them. Some people want to have quiet picnics, while others want to have noisy amplified concerts. Some people want to enjoy the trees, while others want to cut down the trees and carve out baseball diamonds. Some people want unkempt nature while others want carefully maintained Victorian walking parks. All of this held loosely together by the term "park." Mark Johnson and George Lakoff use these example of a "park" as evidence to prove prototype theories. Or at least, it doesn't seem that we can come up with necessary and sufficient conditions for setting forth the proper usage of the term "park."

  12. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's my arrangement to "I heard the Bells" (see above comment).

  13. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's more evidence that, for many, Christmas has become a secular holiday: In Great Britain, Christmas cards rarely have religious themes.

  14. pastor Michael Turne says:

    The world does not want to realize what Christmas is all about because then they have to be held accoutnable for all there intoxication, orgies, and roudiness (as one ommentor thought christmas should be. Yes jesus was not actually born in december but He is the reason we celebrate. It is the non-christians not the christians who have distorted things. St. Nicholas (the background for Santa claus) gave kidas gifts because of what Christ had given him (forgiveness of his sins and eternal life in heaven not letting him die and go to hell). The world has turned it into what it is today.

  15. Got news for you, pastor—the world always determines what something is, in any era, to suit its own purposes. Recognition just takes a little longer.

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