Here are two perspectives that challenge the mainstream way the holidays are understood—it’s important to consider these ideas as people in our community celebrate Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanza, the Winter Solstice, or the Winter Holiday Season. The first piece is by Rabbi Michael Lerner and the second is by sociology professor John Brueggemann.
Has Santa -- Christmas' Salesman of the Year -- become more culturally central to Christmas than the Christ child? Credit: Creative Commons/artbyheather.
Spiritual Hope on Christmas & Chanukah
by Rabbi Michael Lerner
Christmas and Chanukah share a spiritual message: that it is possible to bring light and hope in a world of darkness, oppression and despair.
The miracle of Chanukah is that so many people were able to resist the overwhelming "reality" imposed by the imperialists and to stay loyal to a vision of a world based on generosity, love of stranger, and loyalty to an invisible God who promised that life could be based on justice and peace. It was these "little guys," the powerless, who managed to sustain a vision of hope that inspired them to fight against overwhelming odds, against the power of technology and science organized in the service of domination, and despite the fact that they were dismissed as terrorists and fundamentalist crazies. When this kind of energy, what religious people call "the Spirit of God," becomes an ingredient in the consciousness of ordinary people, miracles ensue.
It is this same radical hope, whether rooted in religion or secularist belief systems, that remains the foundation for all who continue to struggle for a world of peace and social justice at a time when the champions of war and injustice dominate the political and economic institutions of our own society, often with the assistance of their contemporary cheerleading religious leaders. It is this radical hope that was celebrated this Chanukah two weeks ago by those Jews who have not yet joined the contemporary Hellenists.
Radical hope is also the message of Christmas. Like Chanukah, it is rooted in the
ancient tradition of a winter solstice celebration to affirm humanity's belief that the days, now grown shortest around December 23, will grow long again as the sun returns to heat the earth and nourish the plants. Just as Jews light holiday lights at this time of year, so do Christians transform the dark into a holiday of lights, with beautiful Christmas trees adorned with candles or electric lights, and lights on the outside and inside of their homes.
Christianity took the hope of the ancients and transformed it into a hope for the transformation of a world of oppression. The birth of a newborn, always a signal of hope for the family in which it was born, was transformed into the birth of the messiah who would come to challenge existing systems of economic and political oppression, and bring a new era of peace on earth, social justice, and love. Symbolizing that in the baby Jesus was a beautiful way to celebrate and reaffirm hope in the social darkness that has been imposed on the world by the Roman empire, and all its successors right up through the contemporary dominance of a globalized rule of corporate and media forces that have permeated every corner of the planet with their ethos of selfishness and materialism.
Seeing Jesus as the Son of God, and as an intrinsic part of God, was also a way of giving radical substance to the notion that every human being is created in the image of God. For God to come on earth, bring a holy message of love and salvation, and then to die at the hands of the imperialists and be resurrected to come back at some future date was and is a beautiful message of hope for a world not yet redeemed, and became an inspiration to hundreds of millions who saw in it the comforting message that the rule of the powerful was not the ultimate reality of existence. And yet, using the specificity of one human being and identifying him as God, a move made by St. Paul but not by Jesus himself, did not fit into the framework of Judaism, which could not accept Jesus as messiah either because of its view that the messiah would bring an end to wars and all forms of oppression, an end that had not yet taken place during or after Jesus' death.
Jews and Christians have much in common in celebrating at this time of year. We certainly want to use this holiday season to once again affirm our commitment to end the war in Iraq, to end global poverty and hunger by embracing the NSP version of the Global Marshall Plan, and to save the world from ecological destruction. We live in dark times—but these holidays help us reaffirm our hope for a fundamentally different reality that we can help bring about in the coming years.
And yet, there are reasons to not mush together these separate holidays. The tremendous pressure of the capitalist marketplace has been to take these holidays, eliminate their actual revolutionary messages, and instead turn them into a secular focus whose only command is "Be Happy and Buy."
The huge pressure to be happy and the media's ability to portray others as beaming with joy makes a huge number of people despondent because they actually don't feel that kind of joy, and imagine that they are the only ones who don't, and hence feel terrible about themselves, something they seek to repair by buying, drugging, or drinking themselves into happiness. And when that too doesn't work for very long, they become all the unhappier with themselves or with others. The pressure to buy as a way of showing that you really care about others puts many people into the position of spending more than they have, putting themselves into further debt, and then feeling depressed about that. Still others have no way to buy "enough" on credit, and then their children, saturated by a media specially attuned to the best ways to market to toddlers and everyone older through their teen years, make their parents or others feel inadequate because they have not bought what the media portrays as the standard for what a "normal family" buys for the holidays.
Jews, seeking to fit into American society, grabbed onto this path of the holidays "not really being religious but only a time to celebrate," and thus many embraced Christmas in the one way they could—buying presents for their non-Jewish friends and neighbors and celebrating Christmas as a "non-sectarian, American holiday." But this well-intentioned move to fit into American society only helped the capitalist secularists, and unintentionally further undermined the ability of Christians to hold on to the religious and spiritual intent of their holiday. This is why spiritual progressives of the Christian faith have urged Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives to not celebrate the holiday as one undifferentiated "holiday season" but to celebrate the holidays as religious and spiritual holidays and to affirm the specific religious message of each one depending on which fits your particular faith.
Yet we also want to affirm the goodness in what secularists have tried to do with these holidays. There has been far too much anger and killing in the name of religions in the history of humanity. We at the Network of Spiritual Progressives do not believe that most of that killing was actually motivated by religious differences so much as by power struggles that were given religious justifications and appearances. And we are all too well aware that in the twentieth century over a 150 million people were slaughtered in the name of secular belief systems and secular powers (World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Stalinist gulag, Maoist gulag, colonial and anti-colonial wars, etc.), so we are not going to buy any notion that says that religion being eliminated will increase world peace. Still, we can understand that those who have sought to secularize the holiday season do so from the fear that without that kind of secularization, it will be harder for people to express caring and mutual support if they have to do so through the frameworks of religions of which they are not apart. Certainly, when it comes to interfaith marriages and families, the need for this kind of smooth path to affirming both traditions is really much needed.
And yet, as a Jew, I want to recognize the particular importance to Christians of having Christmas be about Christ, not about gifts and drinking and merry making but about the meaning of the Christ for Christian belief. In this respect, there is a fundamental asymmetry here. Christmas and Easter are the main Christian holidays, while Chanukah is only a minor holiday that has become major only because Jews in the West who were trying to be more assimilated into the dominant cultures of the West in the past 150 years felt the need to provide their children with something that could compensate them for not having Christmas. But our major holidays are Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur and Passover (and of course, weekly Shabbat), and so when Chanukah gets secularized we don't lose as much as Christians do when Christmas is secularized, so in respect to the requests from our spiritual progressive Christian sisters and brothers, I want to affirm their call to make Christmas a religious holiday and their desire to not celebrate it unless you are religiously Christian.
As we enter this holiday season, let us stay conscious on all these levels, resist the allure and the seductive charm of the capitalist marketplace and its capacity to reduce all reality and all loving to the consumption of "things," and instead return to the deep spiritual messages of our own traditions, while lovingly supporting each other to stay true to our own deepest truths.
Whose War on Christmas? The Corrosive Power of Cheer and Commerce
by John Brueggemann
Here we go again. “School Bans Santa over Religious Concerns.” ”Christmas Concert Cancelled in Hawaii.” “Charlie Brown Violates U.S. Constitution?” The War on Christmas is afoot! Fox News is correct—there is a sustained effort under way to discredit the sacred truths of this holy day. The only problem is that they have fingered the wrong culprit.
It’s not government that is attacking Christmas. It is the market. Indeed, the market has all but conquered Christmas, which is why its Salesman of the Year, Santa, is culturally more central than the Christ Child. If Christmas has switched loyalties along these lines, it is at the behest of its new master that it has become imperial in its ambitions. There is not a War on Christmas, it might be said, but a War of Christmas. Jon Stewart says Christmas has laid siege to other holidays. Black Friday started a day earlier this year (on what used to be known as Thanksgiving) and lasted a week. Christmas trappings now go on sale well before Halloween. And of course Chanukah was Santafied some time ago. The invitation to join in seasonal cheer and shopping is broadly inclusive.
One of the mediating factors in this cultural shift is the new digital technology, which is a primary vehicle for the market’s conquest of Christmas. Ten years ago I started holding a contest in my introductory sociology course to see which student could go the longest without using the Internet. There was no obligation (i.e. credit). It was a fun experiment. Back then, everyone usually pulled off at least a few hours. Most students could go several days.
Things were different this year. “But my mom would worry.” “My friends wouldn’t know how to reach me!” “I wouldn’t know when anything was going to happen.” “I could do better if you warned us that this contest was coming.” “What is the prize for the person who holds out the longest?” “I don’t see the problem.” The cause for this shift is obvious: we have moved from voluntary use to basic dependence. They can’t be successful students, responsible children, informed citizens, or reliable friends if they don’t access the Web. At least the relative costs—financial, social, interpersonal, and more—have increased significantly.
In their responses, though, I detected something else. Did they feel defensive about or protective of the roles technology plays in their lives? Were they worried about being judged? Were they anxious about their own addictions to the technology? Was there an emerging sense of insidious tradeoffs?
With little prodding, some students revealed the burden they feel to be available, active, curious, and positive in every communication on the Web.
On the one hand, it is about who we are to the world, what we share, say or do. Of course, we all fear that our deepest insecurities will be uncovered. It’s the nature of life in modern society. We are pressured to perform happiness and success. Yet we are not always happy or successful. Our lives are sometimes defined by tedium, weakness, or fear. The gap between the insistently encouraged sunny performance and the potential darkness of interior life is expanding partly as a result of the new technology.
On the other hand, it is a about what we get from the world, how we learn, stay current, and keep up with people. The torrent of information means we can never again claim ignorance. One problem here is how knowledge and wisdom are conflated. Just because you can look something up on the Web doesn’t make you smarter. For some, the more facts we learn, the more humble we feel about true understanding. That is, things are more complicated than we realized. We never know enough.
Aside from the weight my students feel from these two aspects of digital communication – the pressures to be upbeat and informed – this situation reminds me of particular problems of the season, which brings us back to the War on Christmas.
The cultural imperative to find the next cool thing — advanced by many on the Web — becomes focused during December: find the best trappings (on Thanksgiving Day, if necessary), find the hottest gift (fight for it if it is the last one on the shelf), and find the best price.
Alongside the frenzy this entails, is there ever a time when the expectation to be positive is more pronounced than the holiday season? Think about Christmas letters, holiday cards, and Facebook postings that take on a merry, festive, cartoon-like quality. “This nullity,” Max Weber averred about modern capitalism, “imagines it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”
It is a tough season for expressing frankness, disappointment, pain, or anything else difficult. Perhaps it always has been. By definition, sacred ritual washes away the profane. But there is something about digital market culture that is distinctively suffocating in this way. It suggests to us that being ordinary in our community and normal in our humanity — think of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life — is not enough. The apparent solution, though, is nothing so durable as the divine. Rather, it is a better product or a better attitude.
It’s not atheists, Jews, or the government making Christians act crazy for the month of December. I personally don’t mind seeing religious symbolism in public places (from any tradition), but I can see why some do, especially those on the wrong side of power. Surely it is fair to protect some public space from evangelism. In any case, I expect what my children learn about my family’s Christian faith will mostly take place at church and at home.
What I do resent is the perversion of those traditions through commercialization ruthlessly injected into our lives by way of unrelenting corporate advertising, product placement all over the public square, and the Google-driven cultural amnesia of our time. I’m certainly not moved by the crocodile tears of the likes of Fox News. Cynically trafficking in fear and resentment in the name of Jesus sounds pretty close to genuine blasphemy.
When I told a colleague about how my students feel encumbered by the obligations of the Internet, she suggested they should just ignore those pressures. The admirable independence of my contrarian friend notwithstanding, though, not all of us are in a position to defy the culture around us. That is why the winner of the contest among my students barely made it four hours without going online.
There are two messages you will never hear on the Internet: turn this machine off and stop spending money. The reason is that the digital technology, which has for many become essential to relationships, safety, citizenship, and employment, is thoroughly entangled with commercialism. It is increasingly difficult to participate in public life this time of year without confronting appeals to buy into holiday cheer and consumerism.
There is a war under way. But it is not about whether a Christmas tree can be mounted here or there. It is about whether the market will define the sacred. Advent invites Christians to do exactly the opposite of what the Christmas shopping season urges: slow down, get ready for something out of the ordinary, look to the most important promises of God and neighbor, and ponder what gifts we have to offer.
For Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other people of faith seeking a different sense of time and a different future for the world, we share a common cause in facing this threat together.
John Brueggemann is professor of sociology and Quadracci Professor in Social Responsibility at Skidmore College. He is the author of Rich, Free, and Miserable: The Failure of Success in America.