Celebrating Christmas in a Pluralistic Society

One of the contentious issues that seems to come up each Christmas, particularly for those of us in the business world, is the rights and wrongs of being overly Christian in the way we celebrate Christmas.

I mean, for Jews its not Christmas, its Hanukkah, and for the Pagans its not Christmas, its the solstice, so what right do we have to impose our ways of celebrating this season on others? Shouldn’t we just limit ourselves to “seasons greetings” cards for instance, lest we offend someone?

But to my way of thinking this is political correctness gone mad. It reminds me of the Mr Hankie Christmas special in Southpark, you know, the one where everything goes to “poo” quite literally.

To my way of thinking what we should be aiming for, as a democratic and pluralistic society, is not a blanding out of religious distinctiveness, but rather for the mutual respect of religious distinctiveness. I may not agree with everything Jewish or Pagan tradition stands for, or Hindu or Buddhist or Atheist for that matter, but I can surely give non-Christians space to express what they find meaningful in life in their own way. I see nothing in the New Testament that would justify compulsion.

But by the same token I feel no compulsion to water down my own tradition either, and I expect the same courtesy and respect I show to others to be returned to me.

This may sound rather impractical, but you know what? I find it works. We invite our Sikh and Hindu and Buddhist and Pagan neighbours to our Christmas gatherings and carols and they come, they feel welcomed, and they thank us. We express interest in their traditions when they open up about them, and you know what? Conversations open up. Sharing starts. Giving starts.

Isn’t giving what Christmas is really about? Giving? Do we think for one second that the magi that rocked up to the original Christmas gathering had their theology all straight? Particularly given their means of divining what was going on? Can you imagine Joseph at the stable door blocking their way with the words, hey, you guys aren’t exactly kosher? Or Mary having a go at her Jewish neighbours for not celebrating the birth of her son in a suitably Christian way? By the same token, can you imagine the angels toning things down their heavenly praises to make them more PC?

In celebrating Christmas as Christians in a pluralistic society I do not think we should be watering down the challenge of Christmas one iota, but we do face greater challenges in communicating what Christmas does mean within our cultural context, and I think at least part of that communication process will involve hospitality and generosity towards our neighbours even as we stay true to ourselves and our way.   

11 thoughts on “Celebrating Christmas in a Pluralistic Society

  1. “Do we think for one second that the magi that rocked up to the original Christmas gathering had their theology all straight?”
    Matt- that is a great line!


  2. It’s interesting about the Christmas thing.
    I’ve noticed how more and more people are being ‘dulled’ by the season. My wife works in retail, and the sales are really soft this season. People are tired of Christmas, and are not buying as much, and just staying home and relaxing, like any other statutory holiday.
    Christmas in business culture is becoming more and more mundane as the secularized Christian culture still acts in reaction to Christian domination. If it ain’t that special, people will stop buying, and there goes the economy. What a hilarious outcome to business taking over as our cultural center.
    I also think it is partly because we’ve had such a long prosperity. We haven’t had a recession since the early 1990’s. I think a good threat/rest from a recession might revive people’s appreciative spirit toward gluttonous consumption…
    … my rant for the day!


  3. Matt,
    Great thoughts! I appreciate the reminder to listen to others, if to those with whom I disagree. I think that demonstrates the love of God. I also loved the line about the magi. I would add, “Do you think Mary and Joseph required the shepherds to take a shower and put on better clothes before bowing down before Jesus?”


  4. Good points. I’d thought about discussing this for my synchroblog post today, but I’m glad I didn’t. You said it better.
    What irks me is the drive of some to make the U.S. a secular state where in the public forum there is no religion. Give me cosmopolitan pluralism and freedom of speech any day over that!


  5. I was tempted to write a post on Santa Claus … scratch that … Saint Nicolas as well Steve. Hadn’t heard of the NGO incident you mentioned before but I agree its all crazy.


  6. “Jesus and the Elves” is a bit like that …
    By John Leo, US News & World Report columnist.
    And Joseph went up from Galilee to Bethlehem with Mary, his espoused wife, who was great with child. And she brought forth a son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. And the angel of the Lord spoke to the shepherds and said,”I bring you tidings of great joy. Unto you is born a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
    “There’s a problem with the angel,” said a Pharisee who happened to be strolling by. As he explained to Joseph, angels are widely regarded as religious symbols, and the stable was on public property where such symbols were not allowed to land or even hover. “And I have to tell you, this whole thing looks to me very much like a nativity scene,” he said sadly. “That’s a no-no, too.” Joseph had a bright idea.
    “What if I put a couple of reindeer over there near the ox and ass?” he said, eager to avoid sectarian strife. “That would definitely help,” said the Pharisee, who knew as well as anyone that whenever a Savior appeared, judges usually liked to be on the safe side and surround it with deer or woodland creatures of some sort. “Just to clinch it, throw in a candy cane and a couple of elves and snowmen, too,” he said. “No court can resist that.” Mary asked, “What does my son’s birth have to do with snowmen?”
    “Snowpersons,” cried a young woman, changing the subject before it veered dangerously toward religion. Off to the side of the crowd, a Philistine was painting the Nativity scene. Mary complained that she and Joseph looked too tattered and worn in the picture. “Artistic license,” he said. “I’ve got to show the plight of the haggard homeless in a greedy, uncaring society in winter,” he quipped. “We’re not haggard or homeless. The inn was just full,” said Mary. “Whatever,” said the painter.
    Two women began to argue fiercely. One said she objected to Jesus’ birth “because it privileged motherhood.” The other scoffed at virgin births, but said that if they encouraged more attention to diversity in family forms and the rights of single mothers, well, then, she was all for them. “I’m not a single mother,” Mary started to say, but she was cut off by a third woman who insisted that swaddling cloths are a form of child abuse, since they restrict the natural movement of babies. With the arrival of 10 child advocates, all trained to spot infant abuse and manger rash, Mary and Joseph were pushed to the edge of the crowd, where arguments were breaking out over how many reindeer (or what mix of reindeer and seasonal sprites) had to be installed to compensate for the infant’s unfortunate religious character.
    An older man bustled up, bowling over two merchants, who had been busy debating whether an elf is the same as a fairy and whether the elf/fairy should be shaking hands with Jesus in the crib or merely standing to the side, jumping around like a sports mascot. “I’d hold off on the reindeer,” the man said, explaining that the use of asses and oxen as picturesque backdrops for Nativity scenes carries the subliminal message of human dominance. He passed out two leaflets, one denouncing manger births as invasions of animal space, the other arguing that stables are “penned environments” where animals are incarcerated against their will. He had no opinion about elves or candy canes.
    Signs declaring “Free the Bethlehem 2” began to appear, referring to the obviously exploited ass and ox. Someone said the halo on Jesus’ head was elitist. Mary was exasperated. “And what about you, old mother?” she said sharply to an elderly woman. “Are you here to attack the shepherds as prison guards for excluded species, maybe to complain that singing in Latin identifies us with our Roman oppressors, or just to say that I should have skipped patriarchal religiosity and joined some new-age goddess religion?” “None of the above,” said the woman, “I just wanted to tell you that the Magi are here.”
    Sure enough, the three wise men rode up. The crowd gasped, “They’re all male!”, and “Not very multicultural!” “Balthasar here is black,” said one of the Magi. “Yes, but how many of you are gay or disabled?” someone shouted. A committee was quickly formed to find an impoverished lesbian wise-person among the halt and lame of Bethlehem. A calm voice said, “Be of good cheer, Mary, you have done well and your son will change the world.” At last, a sane person, Mary thought. She turned to see a radiant and confident female face. The woman spoke again: “There is one thing, though. Religious holidays are important, but can’t we learn to celebrate them in ways that unite, not divide? For instance, instead of all this business about ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo,’ why not just ‘Season’s Greetings’?”
    Mary said, “You mean my son has entered human history to deliver the message, ‘Hello, it’s winter’?” “That’s harsh, Mary,” said the woman. “Remember, your son could make it big in midwinter festivals, if he doesn’t push the religion thing too far. Centuries from now, in nations yet unborn, people will give each other pricey gifts and have big office parties on his birthday. That’s not chopped liver.”
    “Let me get back to you,” Mary said.


  7. Your Magi comment was quite wonderful.
    Great thoughts here. Thanks for the call for greater and deeper hospitality towards all.


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