Not Offended by Christmas

How The War Against Mangers and Menorahs Began

The thing is, I remember Christmas.

I mean, real Christmas.

I was born in 1962. Which means that by 1966 or 1967 or so…I was aware that something magical happened to the world, at least to our world in America, in the middle of Winter.

By the time I was in kindergarten, I had some names for what was happening all around me at these wonderful times, and I grasped the basic story outline.

All at once, it seemed, drab interiors — the grocery store, with its beige linoleum flooring and its sad walls; the institutional-green halls of my elementary school; the butcher’s shop window, which previously had only sausages and veal chops on bland display; the window of the hardware store, which has til then showcased just unremarkable containers of grout, and drill bits, and cans of paint — indeed, the intersections themselves, which before then could not have been less interesting — suddenly all erupted in a three-dimensional froth of sparkle and shine, joyous images, and radiant color. The Bible in 52 Weeks ... Bixby, Rev. Dr. Wes Best Price: $6.94 Buy New $10.99 (as of 12:14 UTC - Details)

Does anyone else remember the Christmas displays of the 1960s? Made of colored cardboard, and perhaps aluminum of some kind, or tin, and adorned with tinsel of all variations; these wall decorations, as I recall, unfolded; and could be taped or draped or hung.

And thus in a heartbeat, you had a giant smiling Santa — not scary, not ironic, not drunk; just Santa, with the red cheeks and the big grin and the fluffy white beard. You had waving fronds of yellow-golden tinsel, and of bright green tinsel, and you had red tinsel that was always the color of a candy apple or a fire truck. You had gigantic sleigh bells — two of them always, friendly and collegial, tied with a plaid bow; you had cutouts of red sleighs piled with gifts. The shop windows reveled in sparkly spray-paint that proclaimed “Merry Christmas!” Or the mottos spelled out: “PEACE ON EARTH.” The intersections themselves revealed white tinsel decor of cross-like four-pointed stars….on street after street after street, hung star after star after star.

And there were creches. I loved them. Loved them. These were also called, once upon a time, “Nativity Scenes.”

Creches abounded at Christmastime in the 1960s. Yes, even in California.

There were tiny creches, as I recall, in candy store windows, next to piles of gilded packages of chocolates. There were creches outside of churches; these stood about four feet tall. What a transformation of the everyday world they represented — a workaday world that even at five and six, I could see was stressful and sometimes boring and sometimes hurtful, especially to adults.

How extraordinary for a child to see a whole world about as high as that child, and as broad as a small car, like a Barbie playhouse but larger and serious and open; and to see that inside that world was a beautiful mom, and a gentle older dad with a staff, and camels and cows and sheep; and shepherds. In the center of it all was a baby, of whom it was said all around me that he was also king of the world; and that we were celebrating his birthday.

There were angels, and three mortal kings in regal, heavy, embroidered robes, bearing gifts. Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh. I wondered at this list, and remember asking my mother, “What is ‘frankincense’?” And when she explained, I was enchanted that a story that was being told all around me, had a precious fragrance at its heart — a fragrance that was, not-usefully, a gift for a small baby.

It was all crazy and sort of nonsensical, but also, on the level of both the logic and the practice where angels live, it all made the most perfect sense.

The Christmas world of the 1960s was also made transcendental by the sudden presence of Christmas carols everywhere. These were mostly religious, though I did not think of them as “religious Christmas carols,” but rather as “Christmas carols”, because the holiday itself was obviously religious.

“Come, All Ye Faithful.” “Angels We Have Heard on High.” “Joy to the World” “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” The music was played everywhere, with all kinds of instrumentation; but you heard it in drug stores, in department stores, in the homes of your friends. This elevated the mood, the vibration, if you will, of everywhere all at once; because all at once sacred thoughts were being thought by thousands of people going about their otherwise ordinary days.

There was everywhere that warm glow you still feel sometimes in crowds on Valentine’s Day or Mothers’ Day, as groups of humans together all think of someone whom they love.

But that glow then was more, and higher, somehow, than are these examples.

Also transformational was that the modern world, that usually listened to 1960s music, was listening to and even, when caroling, singing, melodies and words from the seventeenth and eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This gave a sense of otherness and continuity and excitement to all that was around us, since our history was rich, and extended long into the past, and since we were experiencing openings into the sounds of other times, whose worship and joys extended to that very day.

But eventually— the Nativity scenes and plays, and the carols even, became “controversial.”

In the 1960s through to the 1970s and into the early 1980s, Christmas movies still had messages of hope, family togetherness, redemption and love.

I noticed in the 1980s, when I was a young college and graduate student, that Christmas still carried that high, that sacred quality. But over time I felt the “Christmas Spirit” eroding and dying.

I noticed that pop culture was adding a whole new cast of personalities to Christmas, exalting them, but dialing down others. “Peanuts,” the cartoon series, had been openly spiritually-oriented in its treatment of the season; “A Charlie Brown Christmas” debuted in 1965.

But “Peanuts” became less culturally central as the 1980s unfolded and the 1990s began. I loved Dr Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (Film, 1966), but that was a fairly new character popularized by the culture. The message was of love in general, but not specifically about that baby in the manger at all. The Whos down in Who-ville did not sing recognizable Christmas songs – -they sang a made-up Latin-sounding carol, “Dahoo Dores”:

“Fahoo fores, dahoo dores
Welcome all who’s far and near
Welcome Christmas, fahoo ramus
Welcome Christmas, dahoo damus”

Sweet, but with no discernible meaning. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? This had been a minor character launched in 1939 in a song, but he now became central — super important. The reindeer, who had not even had widely-known names in my childhood, unless you hunted out the 1823 poem “The Night Before Christmas” — all were now familiarly named. Elves? Critical! Santa’s factory and the manufacturing process of toys? SO central! A Christmas Story, 1983, became the hallmark of that decade — it is nostalgic but is in no way religious. 52 Weeks Through the B... Merritt, James Best Price: $3.49 Buy New $10.49 (as of 12:14 UTC - Details)

All of these characters and side narratives are fun, but they are not actually about — Christmas; about the birth of the Christ child.

They are about other things. Inclusion, not discriminating on the basis of someone’s unusual snout, the making and distributing consumer goods.

Then — in 1989, an important lawsuit deconstructed Christmas — and Hanukah, for that matter —in America. In the lawsuit “County of Allegheny vs ACLU,” according to that organization’s website,

“Two public-sponsored holiday displays in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union. The first display involved a Christian nativity scene inside the Allegheny County Courthouse. The second display was a large Chanukah menorah, erected each year by the Chabad Jewish organization, outside the City-County building. The ACLU claimed the displays constituted state endorsement of religion. This case was decided together with Chabad v. ACLU and City of Pittsburgh v. ACLU of Greater Pittsburgh.”

I was surprised to read this, because in the yawning, ever-hungry abyss, where national memories that don’t fit “the narrative” go to die, the fact that the ACLU took aim in this famous case against the display of a public Menorah — as well as against a public Christian creche, which in contrast is widely known — has been utterly lost to history. Those who want to share their Nativity scenes openly in public with their neighbors, are depicted in “the narrative” as thug-like Christian white supremacists. It’s been entirely erased from American history that the people of Allegheny got in trouble with the ACLU for inviting their Jewish neighbors to share with the larger community the joy, pride and symbolism of their minority-religion Hanukkiah.

Indeed, this case, that changed America, is an odd one. It’s as weirdly decided as was Roe v. Wade.

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