Christmas like you mean it

I inherited from my father a love for word play. I love palindromes, Spoonerisms and contronyms and I love verbing nouns. At this time of year, I like to verb the word “Christmas.” In other languages, it’s easy. For instance, the Germans verb Weinachten. The famous German poem that I memorized in High School, “Christkindl`s Weihnachtsgedichte,” includes the line, “es Weinachtet sehr,” which literally means, “It Christmases a lot.”

The English language has always been adaptive, ready to embrace new words. If you look online, English uses of the verb form today include towns getting Christmased-up and people getting Christmased out. Perhaps it’s catching. But it’s not just a new phenomenon. I found this fantastic poem from 1887:

The Verbing Man

“Oh, yes I Christmased,” says the man,
Who skips from verb to noun;
I dined and turkeyed à la mode,
And curry sauced in town.

I restauranted everywhere,
I whiskyed, beered and aled;
Cigared I on Havanas rare,
And on Regalias galed.I

New Yeared, too, on viands rich
And I champagned myself;
Or Tomed and Jerryed — can’t tell which,
Expenditured my pelf.

I resolutioned on that day,
As spirits throbbed my head;
But when the pangs next panged away,
I just cocktailed instead.

—Texas Siftings
[reprinted in the Los Angeles Times, Feb. 3, 1887, p.9]

Let me get to my point. We’re well into the Christmas season, and the annual grumbling has begun. One thing you can count on every December is the Christians complaining that nobody’s recognizing Christmas anymore. Cashiers and waitresses won’t say, “Merry Christmas.” Cards opt for “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays.” Now we have Holiday trees, Holiday spirit and Holiday blend coffee.

One song probably grates on these Christmas defenders more than any other: “Holiday Like You Mean It.” The CBC has been running it on radio and TV this month. (If you haven’t gotten the song stuck in your head yet, you can find it here.) Rob Wells captured the essence of the Holiday season: festive, jolly and merry; presents, lights and bells. The fact that the Holiday has reached the point of verbing tells me the culture has crossed a line. December is the month to Holiday as we used to Christmas. And I for one am grateful that we’ve finally gotten to this point of honesty.

As I was wandering around the Eaton Centre in Toronto at the beginning of December (with that jingle stuck in my head), I realized I’m happy to tease this mashup season apart. Let’s let Holidaying refer to the rampant consumerism and materialism, the hustle and bustle and general busyness of the season, even the Santas and reindeer and elves.

As believers, I say we let them have the Holiday and we take back Christmas. Rather than defend the label, let them move on to new terminology for the season they’ve co-opted while we return to the real reason for Christmas: God coming to earth to be with us and live among us. Let’s redeem the term and let Christmas be a reflective and joyful time, centred around Christ and the fact that he gave. Then let’s renew our commitment to His mission: to be light in a dark world.

The well-known conclusion of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol says of Scrooge that, “it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!” In other words, after his transformation, Scrooge Christmased well. How did he do that? He took on the joy of generosity, his heart laughed, and “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them.”

Let the world Holiday while we Christmas. As we do that as a minority Church, we’ll stand out against the culture rather than fighting to conform the culture to our ideals.

Christians, let’s Christmas like we mean it.

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Reading it upside down

It’s human nature to scramble to be on the side of the majority. We will always try to find connections with others that form cliques and create a power base. Put a diverse group of people in a jury room or a lifeboat, and they will attempt to clump. If there are obvious connecting points like skin tones or gender, majorities will form and subtle biases set in. The women will gather against the men. The tall versus the short. The brown eyes versus the blue. But the same phenomenon will happen even if there are no obvious majorities. The introverts will mobilize against the extroverts. Or the morning people versus the night owls. No one wants to be the minority, and no one wants to be oppressed.

Mark Twain, never afraid of being in the minority himself, observed,

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

I believe he’s talking about more than cheering for the underdog. He’s saying that being a member of a power-based clique is reason enough to question how we got there and what we are doing to stay there. What am I doing to oppress the minority? Do I believe that a winner requires a loser? Where am I vulnerable to group thinking? How am I silencing other voices? These are the kinds of questions commonly asked by the Old Testament prophets.

In My Problem with the Bible, Brian Zahnd says we in the West have been reading the Bible incorrectly. We love to identify with David versus Goliath, or Moses versus Egypt, or Israel versus Babylon. Our Sunday School curriculum is built around that idea. We think we are the minority or the underdog, but we’re not. Instead, Zahnd says,

I’m an ancient Egyptian. I’m a comfortable Babylonian. I’m a Roman in his villa….
I’m a citizen of a superpower. I was born among the conquerors. I live in the empire.

So the characters we should be identifying with are Nebuchadnezzar and Caesar. When’s the last time you put yourself in Pharaoh’s or King Saul’s sandals? Suddenly the shepherds Moses and David become “pesky” and “annoying.” We find ourselves, like King Ahab (1 Kings 22:8) muttering that we don’t want to ask the prophets because they always give us bad news.

The problem is that we, as majority, wealthy English-speakers in the empire try to identify with a Hebrew slave, an exile or a shepherd, and it’s a bad fit. More than that, Zahnd says it’s dangerous.

What happens if those on top read themselves into the story, not as imperial Egyptians, Babylonians, and Romans, but as the Israelites? That’s when you get the bizarre phenomenon of the elite and entitled using the Bible to endorse their dominance as God’s will. This is Roman Christianity after Constantine. This is Christendom on crusade. This is colonists seeing America as their promised land and the native inhabitants as Canaanites to be conquered. This is the whole history of European colonialism. This is Jim Crow. This is the American prosperity gospel. This is the domestication of Scripture.

History is usually written by the victors, but the Bible is history written by the conquered, the oppressed, the exile, the occupied and the enslaved. Unless we come from that vantage point, the Bible is not good news. It challenges our power, it asks what we’re doing for the minority. It questions our subtle oppression. It attempts to reveal the blind spots of the majority.

The article is well worth reading. But it also calls us to pause and reflect.