Those of us of a certain age will remember the old December television commercial featuring an animated Santa Claus riding a big Norelco electric shaver through a snowy countryside.
"Even our name," an announcer said at the end of the ad while the word "Noelco" came on the screen, "means Merry Christmas."
If only it were as simple as that today. Exactly what "Merry Christmas" is intended to signify to both those who utter it and hear it has been the subject of often bitter nationwide controversy. Urged on by fundamentalist Christians, the debate has intensified over how department stores and other elements of the public sphere treat the 25th of December.
The friction stems in part from the idea that majority rule must apply in matters of expression of faith; that one’s utterances in public must pass a certain religious muster or thus be unfaithful to that particular majority religious tradition.
Taken in its totality — that is, how Christmas is celebrated in many different but distinctly identifiable ways in this country — it cannot be so clearly defined as to say that Person A is celebrating it properly and Person B is not.
So much about the Christmas we celebrate today derives not only from religion, folklore and family tradition but many other sources, including the commercial realm that is today under such withering fire. Christians who are miffed at how the secular world has co-opted the observance should recall that centuries ago leaders of the early church co-opted it themselves.
The Romans and pagans of old had established, popular winter-solstice-based celebrations. Early Christian leaders hoped that by marking the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in late December as well — recent research has found that he may actually have been born on a date closer to March — might serve to ease non-believers into Christendom through the use of tradition and symbolism to which they were already accustomed: holly, evergreens and so on.
At the core of it all, what many of today’s purists really are objecting to is the extent to which so many of us have lost that original message of the one called the Prince of Peace amid the centuries of layering upon Christmas these sundryother trappings. Doubtless many have. But again, faith is not subject to majority rule, even if one faith can be defined as being practiced by a majority of us.
Americans are free to profess faith in whatever amounts we choose — even none. Our Bill of Rights guarantees that the government will not tell us whether to have a faith or which one to espouse. The First Amendment does not govern the private sector, only government. People have the right to believe that Christmas is all about Jesus, period, or not, but they must also understand that others have the right to disagree — and they do, and they will.
Despite the many Christian traditions that permeate our governmental functions, in America majority rule still does not determine expressions of faith; individual choice does. Christmas has become something belonging to everyone who wants to be a part of it.
And so what can we expect of the department stores? Who can blame them for anything other than what they seek the most: to make money, appealing to our widespread practice of celebrating this day by spending freely on what they sell, a practice certainly uncontemplated by the early Christians.
As such the stores can be expected to appeal to as many people as possible, even those who aren’t particularly faithful but who may partake in so much else available to us after so many ages of celebration.
We’re free to "keep Christmas," as Charles Dickens described it, however we want, allowing all others the right to "keep" it as they wish. We have the right to promote our own keeping, but we would be better off emulating the one whose birth started it all by doing so with love and understanding rather than scorn and aspersion.