Editor’s Note: One of my old friends who’s extremely religious once told me that there was no way I could celebrate Christmas in any meaningful way. My response is to quote Scrooge: “Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.” Like most things in America, this holiday has become part of the popular culture, and whether its secularization is a good thing or bad is a matter of opinion. However, any holiday that produces a movie like the 1951 version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is worth its weight in eggnog.

The Christmas Melting Pot: We Should Enjoy It


Tis the season for Fox News’ annual crusade against the liberals’ war on Christmas. This year’s battlefields include Tulsa, Oklahoma, which renamed its Christmas parade a “holiday parade.” To paraphrase America’s favorite faux newsman, Jon Stewart, Christmas survived the Roman Empire; it will probably survive Tulsa.

Bill O’Reilly, another faux newsman, has exploited the defense of Christmas as a seasonal campaign to enflame his flock over department store clerks who wish him “Happy Holidays,” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and Christmas cards that say “Season’s Greetings.” This year, maybe we could strive for Peace on Earth and declare a truce.

What if atheists and secularists suppressed the urge to whine whenever a volunteer fire department put up a crèche? I’ve never been harmed by the lambs from a manger. At the same time, if Christians agree to be less indignant about Kwanzaa or waiters wishing them a “Happy Holiday,” I won’t bellyache when one of the faithful says, “Jesus loves you.”

O’Reilly’s mock outrage stems from his contention that the desire for tolerance and inclusiveness breeds secularism and paganism, but this has been true of Christmas from its beginnings. It has always been a melting pot of traditions — religious and otherwise.

Historians can’t pinpoint the date of Christ’s birth, but Biblical scholars maintain that, because “there were shepherds abiding in the fields,” it must have been during the warmer months, not the winter. December 25 was chosen to accommodate the pagan Saturnalia, a Roman winter solstice festival. Some strict fundamentalists — such as Jehovah’s Witnesses — reject Christmas completely, because of its pagan connection.

The virgin birth, which appears in only two of the four gospels, and nowhere else in the New Testament, echoes Roman mythological tales of gods reproducing with humans. According to Biblical experts, Mary’s virginity is based on a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for “young girl” (Isaiah 7:14). Virgin birth is an idea unknown in the Old Testament and is as foreign to Judaism as the concept of God fathering a child.

Nevertheless, Matthew’s gospel attempted to fit the Nativity into Jewish messianic tradition by placing it in Bethlehem, from which the Messiah was expected to come. Luke invented a nonhistorical Roman census that sent Mary and Joseph to the city of David in order to give Jesus some cachet among those Jews who knew him to be from Nazareth.

Regardless, no amount of debate regarding its literal historicity makes the Christmas story any less beautiful, or less meaningful for believers. Like the birth legends of most religious figures, it conveys a sense of magic and numinous wonder  — from the Star of Bethlehem to the journey of the Magi — that inspires those who hear it.

For nonbelievers, the birth of Christ may be meaningless in a religious or doctrinal sense, but most of us love Christmas anyway. I love dragging a tree indoors and decorating it, driving around looking at homes covered with lights and slipping a little rum into the eggnog. I love hearing Handel’s Messiah and the Bach Magnificat and Christmas carols that are as familiar as oversized stockings hung on a fireplace.

I love the 1951 B&W film of “A Christmas Carol,” with Alastair Sim (the best version, bar none). My personal Ghost of Christmas Past takes me back to the Yule log on Channel 11, singing in a Baptist choir on Christmas Eve, the Greenwich High School Christmas Pageant and plotting with my brother how to get our parents up as early as possible on Christmas morning.

The Spirit of Christmas Present is, like America, a melting pot of traditions from around the world. What do Santa Claus, mistletoe, the Grinch or a red-nosed reindeer have to do with the birth of a savior? About as little as Nat King Cole singing “The Christmas Song” or a sale at The Apple Store. But it’s part of a season of traditions we’ve come to share.

As an agnostic, I’m not annoyed when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, anymore than when I hear “God bless you” after I sneeze. Happy Holidays … Season’s Greetings … I’m pleased when a total stranger wishes me a Merry Kwanzaa or Happy Hanukkah.

Because the important thing isn’t using the “proper” noun — it’s the adjective. No one has ever wished me an unmerry Christmas or an unhappy Hanukkah. And if someone says they’re praying for me, that’s nice too. My personal opinion of the power of prayer notwithstanding, it’s nicer to think someone’s praying for me than praying against me.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come should bring us together, not drive us apart, as O’Reilly and his Grinches try to do each December. Like most birth tales, Christmas is aspirational — it looks toward a future hope for peace on Earth and good will toward men. Even the most devout would probably concede that the birth of Christ hasn’t brought either, but at least it’s something to wish for as a new year approaches.

America is a melting pot of races, religions, beliefs and unbeliefs. On Christmas Eve, my wife and I invite those who might otherwise have nowhere else to go into our home. Over the years, we’ve shared food and drink with deists, atheists, Protestants, Jews and Catholics, and even an occasional Muslim, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as the soundtrack.

As Tiny Tim said, with an emphasis on the pronouns, especially the final indefinite: “God bless us … everyone.”

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