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Saving Christmas -- from whom, for whom?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, December 20, 2004

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North Carolina made the lead paragraph of the a Sunday "New York Times" article headlined "Does Christmas Need To Be Saved?"

The "Times" shared with its New York and national readers a story that most of us down here had already read about. But here is what the article said, "A pastor in Raleigh, N.C., took out a full-page newspaper ad in November exhorting Christians to shop only at stores that included 'Merry Christmas' in their promotions."

I plan to continue to observe Christmas.

The article then summarized the status of the debate about whether and how much public schools and governmental offices could bring religious messages, music, and symbols into celebrations of the holiday.

Meanwhile, the Raleigh pastor mentioned by the Times, Patrick L. Wooden of the Upper Room Church of God in Christ, must be smiling like Santa Claus at the end of his Christmas Eve travels.

His full-page ad in the "News & Observer" probably cost his church somewhere around $7,000. But he got a thousand times that much value in the free publicity from the controversy that the ad generated.

Wooden's ad opened with "Attention Christians!" It then urged those "Christian" readers "to spend their hard-earned dollars with merchants who include the greeting 'Merry Christmas' in their holiday advertising promotions.."

Read another way, Wooden was asking for a boycott of stores whose ads simply said "Happy Holidays" or otherwise omitted any mention of Christmas.

This reading of the ad provoked the controversy that got Wooden the extra attention. It is the kind of debate that comes up whenever the public's Christmas celebrations offend a non-Christian or worries other people who feel like someone else's religion is being forced on them.

The "Time's" article describes other examples across the country where deeply engrained public Christmas customs are met with demands to remove religion from public activities.

I had reservations about Wooden's ad, but for different reasons. Why, I thought, does a minister want to insist that Christmas and the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ be associated with an orgy of advertising, consumption, and spending? This corrupting commercialism of the holiday season has been the target of many sermons from the pulpits of other Christian Churches.

Instead of trying to force merchants to include a Christmas greeting in their commercial advertisings, some might like to require a tobacco-type warning at the bottom of the ad. It would say in prominent type-size something like:

WARNING: UNRESTRAINED CONSUMERISM COULD BE INCONSISTENT WITH THE DIGNIFIED CELEBRATION OF THE BIRTH OF JESUS. NO CHRISTIAN CHURCH OR CHURCH LEADER RECOMMENDS THE PURCHASE OF THE PRODUCTS MENTIONED IN THIS ADVERTISEMENT.

Students of American History and Christian History tell us that the celebration of Christmas has not always been so deeply intertwined in American public and religious culture. The Puritan and Presbyterian reformers of the early 17th Century tried to do away with Christmas celebrations in England and Scotland. Our American Puritan forefathers felt so strongly that they actually outlawed any celebration of Christmas in Boston up until 1680's. The United States did not make Christmas an official holiday until 1870. Until the 1950's people in Scotland worked on Christmas day and saved their reveling until New Year's.

Some Christians today quietly hold on to the Reformers' skepticism whether or not Christmas should be celebrated at all-even in the churches. The late television evangelist Garner Ted Armstrong may not have been the ideal spokesman for this point of view. But, like the early Reformers, he insisted that the December 25 celebrations are based on pagan customs. That day, he insisted, has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus and should be ignored by Christians. Armstrong put his argument this way: "It is impossible to 'put Christ back in Christmas,' since He was never in Christmas in the first place!"

Notwithstanding the views the Garner Ted Armstrongs of the world (or of my Presbyterian ancestors), I plan to continue to observe Christmas and hope always to experience the joys of family fellowship and religious renewal that are wonderful parts of the day and the season.

And, notwithstanding the views of Patrick L. Wooden, I would just as soon the merchants don't try to tie the commercial pitches in their holiday sales ads to the remembrance of sacred events that Christians cherish.

*******************************

D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409 or www.ourstate.com). He is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week's (December 26) guest is Clyde Edgerton, author of "Lunch at the
Piccadilly."

Programs coming up:

December 26: Clyde Edgerton, Lunch at the Piccadilly

January 2: Jim Early, Tar Heel Barbecue

January 9: Lynn York, The Piano Teacher

January 16: John Dalton, Heaven Lake

January 23: Chuck Stone, Squizzy the Black Squirrel

January 30: Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities

February 6: Sheila Kay Adams, My Old True Love

 
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