(Reprint from my Potomac News Column, December 23, 2004)
By Charles Reichley
They Can Ban the Symbols, but Not the Substance
I love Christmas lights. Each year my family spends evenings driving around town looking at the lights and decorations of our neighbors and communities. I have my own Christmas light display, which has over 20,000 lights and nine deer. It is part of how I celebrate the season. For me, lights are a symbol of Christmas.
The symbols (and sounds) of Christmas are under assault like never before. Not a day goes by without another report of a school banning Christmas carols, or government banning Christmas trees or mangers or the word “Christmas” itself, often in the name of tolerance. But tolerance means “to put up with”. If we were practicing tolerance, those who didn’t want to see a manger would tolerate it, just as Christians would tolerate symbols of Hanukah or Ramadan or other religions.
It is a shame that government is working so hard to separate Christianity from one of its most important holy days. But it is clear to me that the effort is failing.
For Christians, Christmas is the celebration of God’s sacrifice for us, the gift of his Son. This message is reflected in the practice of gift-giving, a symbol of gifts given for a birthday, and of the gift that was given to us. And while the religious symbols of Christmas are being banned, there is no move to divorce government from the message of giving that is at the heart of the holiday.
In fact, the message could not be clearer. Stores use it to convince us to spend ever-increasing amounts of money. Charities count on the increased good-will toward man to close out the year on-budget. It is no coincidence that the Salvation Army sends out its soldiers to our malls and superstores at Christmas. And people spend days putting up Christmas decorations simply for the enjoyment of passers-by.
Giving at Christmas is a profoundly religious message, more so than Christmas trees, candy canes, or even the manger. These are just symbols which will remind you of your beliefs, or invoke good feelings, or memories, or maybe offend you. But the message of Christmas is that man needs a gift to be saved, and that only God can give it. Many find that message offensive, and yet the message persists.
Of course, a message of gifts given must include gifts received. The Christmas story includes not only the birth of Jesus, but the wise men bringing him gifts. Likewise, we not only give presents, but we receive them. We teach our children to love giving gifts more than receiving gifts. And most important, that they should not expect gifts, but should be grateful for them.
For a gift earned is not really a gift, but a payment. The story of Santa Clause illustrates this idea. Santa is the chief giver, the eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful external force for good. But he keeps a list. Naughty children need not apply. Be good and you get presents, be bad and you get a lump of coal, suitable for a long hot fire, if you get my meaning. Sounds like gifts are earned. But, there is redemption. The evil magician in Frosty the Snowman repents of his sin and receives a gift from Santa that he didn’t earn or deserve.
Most of us don’t use Christmas gifts as a way to reward or punish our children. We give them presents because we love them whether they do good or bad, just as God gave his gift to us without regard to our own actions. Gifts of love are not earned, they are bestowed.
And we try to teach our children to be thankful for whatever gifts they receive. “It’s the thought that counts”. While a gift is not earned, it can be rejected. If you reject a gift it is no longer yours to keep. Stores make rejection easy with gift receipts, but the strategy of “buy something they can return” reduces the spirit of Christmas to a meaningless exchange of goods. The gifts that mean the most are the ones which show thought, which take effort, which speak to the love between friends and family, and to our fellow man. Giving should involve sacrifice to have meaning.
This is the motivation for singing carols at the nursing home, or standing in freezing weather presenting a living nativity scene. It is the spirit that drives people to volunteer at soup kitchens, or donate food, or toys, or money. It is the spirit of giving in a sacrificial way.
Christmas is the symbol of the supreme sacrifice made for us, the reminder of God’s gift of his only Son. That unmistakably religious message, unacceptable for the public square, is ingrained in the very nature of the Christmas celebration, and cannot be silenced. It is proclaimed with each selfless act, each appeal to charity, each card opened and present unwrapped. And for me, in each twinkling Christmas light. They can take away the symbols of Christmas, but not its meaning.