Saturday, December 21, 2013

No “Christmas” without Christ

Who is your favorite Scrooge? (George C. Scott)
There are few things more pathetic than American Atheists’ annual billboard effort to piss on Christmas. This year, despite their attempt to claim the holiday for their own, is no exception.

Start with the group American Atheists, founded in 1963 by the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair of vile memory. O’Hair, an amazingly foul-mouthed harridan, was famous for her rants that were long on invective and short on subject-matter knowledge; if anything, she was the model for the internet atheist, the kind that makes classic atheists shake their heads and moan in despair. After her sad end in 1995 (abducted and murdered along with her son and granddaughter by a former AA office manager), the leadership of American Atheists were content to let their organization coast along unnoticed and unremarked by the general populace until atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens raised a wave of public interest early in the last decade.

That is when they decided, with characteristic intellectual laziness, that Christianity could be advertised out of the public square.

Perhaps it was current public relations director, Dave Muscato, who came up with the notion that the average American attends church only out of social compunction and would quit doing so if only she were encouraged to break with everyone else. Maybe that was the case in the Catholic Church prior to 1968 — weekly Mass attendance slumped dramatically after Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae that year. That model might have obtained in the mainline Protestant congregations before they abandoned traditional Christian teachings for trendy lefty innovations. Nowadays, though, the only people who go to church without really believing in anything are Unitarians. Result: thousands of dollars spent on ads telling people who don’t go to church anyway to sleep in on Sunday. Bright … real bright.

Of course, that’s not the only approach they’ve tried. Another has been to post pithy quotations from Famous Atheists inside buses … whether to impress and shame believers or encourage silent nonbelievers with the sheer awesomeness of the Famous Atheists quoted isn’t quite clear. But the only advertisement with any sticking power is their annual “bah humbug” billboard, timed and placed for maximum annoyance value.

And, as usual, this year's billboard is a whiny, ineffective piece of bluster. “Who needs Christ during Christmas? Nobody!”

The ad then tries to convince us that “the true meaning of Christmas” consists of vaguely connected concepts like “family”, “charity”, “human life” and “friends”. Muscato claimed in the press release that the average person cares more about the food and fun and gifting more than the religious aspects. “This season is a great time of year for a hundred reasons — none of them having to do with religion,” president David Silverman chirped in agreement. They then go on to point out that a lot of the traditions associated with the season didn’t start with Christians … as if no one was aware of that bit of trivia. “Christianity has been trying to claim ownership of the season for hundreds of years. But the winter solstice came first and so did its traditions. The season belongs to everybody.”

There it is, in case you missed it. What Silverman, Muscato et alia are celebrating is the winter solstice. You could call it “Winterval”, as Ian from England suggested to Richard Collins at Linen on the Hedgerow. Or you could pretend it’s the old Roman Saturnalia or the Anglo-Saxon Yule. You could even go so far as to call it “Festivus”.

But it ain’t Christmas. I certainly don’t begrudge non-Christians their participation in the holiday traditions; I just wish to point out that the traditions are merely associated with Christmas, and not Christmas itself.

If we indulge ourselves in Aristotelian categories, then all the baptized pagan elements Silverman and Muscato are so careful to point out — the gifts, the tree, the mistletoe and all that happy crap — are accidental to Christmas; we Christians can celebrate the Nativity without them. The importance of family and friends, of human life, of charity — those are second-order consequences, not the essence of Christmas. Yes, these are all great things worth celebrating … especially human life, without which all the other good things have no real value; without a right to life, no other human right is worth speaking about. But they don’t reach the “true meaning of Christmas” … no matter how much you liked Bill Murray’s rant at the end of Scrooged.

In fact, only one speech in one Christmas special ever captured “what Christmas is all about” … and it was Linus’ reading of Luke 2:8-14 KJV in A Charlie Brown Christmas:

It is sad that so many people get lost in all the secondary, irrelevant trappings of “the holiday season”, to the point that they forget the true meaning behind Christmas, or even react against it through made-up celebrations like Festivus and Kwanzaa. It’s even sadder that people like Silverman and Muscato can’t simply enjoy their Winterval without effing and whinging about those mean ol’ Christians and their insistence on making people go to church (O the inhumanity!). I know there are plenty of non-Christians — even atheists and agnostics — who feel no such need to diss Jesus or Christians, who feel free to enjoy their churchless holiday without engaging in agonistic polemics.

However, for Christians the focus is always going to be on the manger in the hills outside of Bethlehem, where a spectacular irruption of the divine into human affairs took place. Without Christ there is literally no “Christ Mass”; the angels could not announce, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” without first telling the shepherds of the newborn Savior. And so let the choir sing:

Hark! the herald angels sing, 
“Glory to the newborn King. 
Peace on earth and mercy mild; 
God and sinners reconciled.” 
Joyful all ye nations rise; 
Join the triumph of the skies. 
With angelic hosts proclaim, 
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.” 
Hark! the herald angels sing, 
“Glory to the newborn King!”
And so from us at the Layne household, a joyous, blessed Christmas and marvelous New Year wherever you are on your journey. May you find God at the end of it, and may the meeting be merry indeed.