Monday, January 4, 2010

War on Christmas: Dispatch from the Front

One of the unfortunate results of the American right's continued whining about the so-called "war on Christmas"--which apparently rages on--is that now saying "Merry Christmas" feels like a lame political statement ... as if my run-of-the-mill December greeting were verbal support for a flagging holiday under siege.

For the record, I only ever said "Merry Christmas" because "Happy Holidays" required a tricky double-aspirated "H" ... a tough feat for the linguistically lazy. (And frankly, "linguistically lazy" is a little tough too.) This year, the kerfuffle got so bad that upon wishing a passerby "Merry Christmas" on Christmas Eve, I was self-righteously corrected: "No, Merry Christ-mas," he said, giving the second word a long "i." Sheesh.

As if a horde of Fox News broadcasters and Republican Congressmen hadn't given me ample reminder that Jesus's favoritest festival is under attack. (Here's Fox's Bill O'Reilly's covering the ongoing assault just a month ago. And here's Stephen Colbert's spot-on riposte.)

But the conflict begs the question: if the right worries that Christmas isn't as important to Americans as it used to be, how important was it to early Christians? How important is it in the Bible? Well ... less important than you'd think.

So here it is, my post-Christmas pop quiz, delivered two weeks after the holiday only to avoid seeming a little too Grinch-ly: how many of the gospels actually mention the birth of Jesus, the event that Christmas supposedly commemorates? a) 1 b)2 c)3 d)4 e)5

If you answered "e," you're right! ... Kidding. There are only four gospels.

And of those four, only 50% of the four mention Christmas--that's right, the correct answer is "b." Surprised?

You shouldn't be. Because the birth of Jesus, at least for the authors of Mark and John, isn't the starting point of the Christian message. Unlike Luke and Matthew (who combine to give us our version of the Christmas story), Mark and John begin with the baptism of Jesus.

Why? Well, for these two evangelists, the real action doesn't start until Jesus starts preaching--when he begins his public ministry. And he doesn't begin his public ministry until he is baptized. And he isn't baptized until sometime around his 30th birthday--baptism only becoming a mainstream Christian ritual years after Jesus's death.

For these two Scrooge-like gospelers, God officially lays his holy imprimatur on Jesus at the river Jordan--when John the Baptist does his water magic, the skies open, and God claims Jesus as his divine spawn. There are no shepherds, no singing angels, no mangers, no Magis, and, sorry Glenn Beck, no Christmas sweaters.

Humbug indeed.

So Bill O'Reilly and Mr. Beck can get a jump start on their "war on Christmas" coverage for next year with this little scoop: the battle began not with Barack Obama and the liberal ay-leets, but with Biblical authors, nearly 2000 years ago.

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