I sat behind a couple of folks on a plane to Seattle this morning who were discussing their distress about a so-called war on Christmas.
“Memorial Day is a holiday,” said the man in a santa hat with disgust. “July 4th and Thanksgiving are holidays. Christmas is, well, Christmas!”
“Absolutely,” nodded the woman next to him. “It’s just more evidence of this war against Christmas.”
On the way off the plane, a flight attendant made the grave mistake of wishing the man happy holidays. He stopped the line of outgoing traffic behind him (including me) to correct her. She demurred, looked toward her feet and smiled sheepishly.
We Christians have a long and storied history of playing the martyr, whether there’s actually anyone persecuting us or not. For some, the perceived threat keeps us sharp and gives us purpose. For others, it’s a manifestation of fear about a changing culture in which Christendom is no longer the baseline identity.
Never mind that there are still more Christians in the United States than any other religion. Never mind that we are afforded remarkable liberty to practice our faith both as individuals and in groups. And never mind that these same liberties are the ones enjoyed by those of other faiths, or of no faith at all, in living how they choose to live.
Beyond all of that, these public expressions of discontent simply add to the negative impressions of Christians as insensitive, whiny and – let’s be honest – jerks. What if the flight attendant is Jewish? Or Muslim? Or maybe even a Christian who has been trained by the airline to be more inclusive in her language so as not to alienate anyone? And how does correcting her in front of a group of strangers reflect well on the man’s faith or convey to her the true spirit of Christmas?
To me, it doesn’t.
I’d also point out that the etymology of the word “holiday” is “holy day,” which inherently implies a sacred meaning, regardless of our broader application of it to secular dates of note like July 4th. And if the true meaning of Christmas is truly the issue, why obscure that fact by wearing a santa hat, which was notably absent in Bethlehem on the day of Jesus’ birth by most accounts?
I expect that at the heart of most such exchanges is a fear of the loss of Christian cultural hegemony. After all, making room for a greater plurality of views not only doesn’t threaten our own beliefs; it also presents an opportunity to understand the world in a broader, richer context if we’re open to it. It’s also a fundamentally American cultural value, which is something many Christians in the United States hold nearly as sacred as the faith itself.
There’s no war, in this country at least, on Christmas or the whole of Christianity. Yes, our numbers are dwindling and, for the first time in many generations, those younger people claiming “none of the above” as their faith has eclipsed the identity of “Christian.” But the kind of pushback expressed by the couple in front of me on the plane generally serves to reinforce the negative stereotypes non-Christians have of us, and I have not yet encountered anyone who experienced a Pauline-like conversion when corrected about their words choice in public.
The greatest gift we could offer the world this Advent season is to demonstrate the kind of far-reaching love and compassion we claim to hold at the heart of our faith. If someone asks you what you believe, tell them a little bit of your story. Otherwise, it’s best to keep your self-righteous indignation to yourself.