Merry Christmas and happy holiday to all! Christmas is a tense morning wherever the Meads gather, as we jump whenever the telephone rings. There’s an old family custom that when two friends or relations greet one another on Christmas morning, the first one who says “Christmas gift!” gets to select one of the other person’s presents. I’ve never known anybody actually to get an extra present this way, but in my family we are nothing if not determined and we all continue to try. If you call us on Christmas Day, don’t expect anybody here to answer with “Hello?” and give you a chance to say “Christmas gift!” We are onto this trick, and to protect our rich hauls of presents we always answer the phone with an aggressive “Christmas gift!” to get in first. So don’t call us unless you are ready to part with a present.
For the Mead clan, this is our sixth Christmas without the woman who was for so long the heart and strength of our family. It is our first without the man whose unfailing love and patient wisdom shaped us all. My mother died in September of 2013, and my father died in May of this year. The memories of their love jostle with our grief as we gather in the absence of two of the finest people any of us have known. The Yule Blog became one of their favorite pieces that I wrote, and as my mother’s sight failed, she asked my father to read them to her in the hospital. As I go through these posts to prepare them for another year, I am sustained and encouraged to know that these essays meant something to both of them through some difficult years of pain and decline—and inexpressibly sad not to be able to share these posts and so much else with them as the season rolls round once again.
Back when mammoths ruled the earth, a first-class postage stamp cost three cents, and my idea of a great adventure was to cross the street without holding hands, my parents used to set up a manger scene every year. During Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, Mary and Joseph would set out en route to the manger, passing through the different rooms of the house and getting a little closer each day. On Christmas Eve, they got to the manger, and on Christmas morning they would be there with the baby Jesus, an ox, a donkey, and the requisite shepherds and angels.
That was also the day the figures of the Three Wise Men would set out toward the manger, retracing Mary and Joseph’s journey through the house until they joined the baby and the shepherds on January 6. By then we were all pretty sick of Christmas and were happy to pack up the manger scene, take down the Christmas tree, and get on with our lives.
The manger scene these days really is the face of Christmas for most people and, perhaps not surprisingly, it is one of the aspects of the season that people resent and fight. Every new Christmas season brings its harvest of lawsuits by groups trying to displace manger scenes in public places. This vexes me less than it does some Christians; on the whole I am proud that Christianity has the self-confidence and experience to shelter dissent and see pluralism as a religious value. I would wish for people of other faiths, including atheists, to become more tolerant rather than wishing Christians to be less so.
In any case, the manger scene started out in the counter-culture; it was a protest movement against the materialism and complacency of mainstream Christianity. The first manger scene seems to have been assembled by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 as part of his program to bring the truths of Christianity to the masses. It was a bit more dramatic than the ones we see today; he used actual living people rather than plastic figurines. The animals were real, too, although there isn’t any direct evidence in the biblical story that there were animals anywhere nearby. Much like the Pope who has taken his name, St. Francis made many of the orthodox uncomfortable as he challenged the easy compromises that Christians are often tempted to make. Christmas has been contentious ever since.
St. Francis introduced the manger scene hoping that it would draw attention away from gift-giving and secular celebrations to the religious meaning of the season. This does not seem to have worked very well. The last time I checked, the score at the mall seemed to be Santa Claus and Shopping ten million, St. Francis and The True Meaning of Christmas, zip.
We think of Christmas as a timeless holiday festival, but it’s had its ups and downs over the years. In Anglo-American history, the Puritans gave up on trying to “put the Christ back in Christmas” and just tried to get rid of Christmas completely. They banned it outright in Massachusetts and did the same thing in the Old Country after the English Civil War. Many of the Founding Fathers had distinctly grinch-like attitudes toward a holiday they associated with papistry and superstition. Well into the nineteenth century, many New England Christians ignored Christmas; according to one report, no college in New England celebrated the Christmas holiday as late as 1847. After all, there’s no date given for Christmas in the Bible. Just as today’s radical Islamists destroy shrines and celebrations they consider un-Koranic, so too many Protestants went to work demolishing anything that smacked of unbiblical superstition, and to many zealous reformers the pagan solstice-fest called Christmas was an excellent place to start.
It took a while for Christmas to make it back into respectability among the Theologically Correct. Two of the classics of Christmas literature, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and The Night Before Christmas poem (most likely by Clement Clarke Moore), come from the early nineteenth century, when Christmas was fighting for wider acceptance in the English-speaking world. Ebenezer Scrooge, like many Dickens villains, is a degenerate type of Puritan; he has lost any love or thought of God, but his life is still cramped by the rules and restrictions his ancestors laid down to stop the frippery and folderol of popular glee. (Even the name Ebenezer, taken from the Hebrew scriptures, points to his Puritan background. In nineteenth-century Britain, Hebrew names were usually associated with low church and evangelical Dissent.)
Christmas never disappeared from the English-speaking world, but once the more zealous Protestants got back with the program, the winter festival exploded to become what it is today: the most widely celebrated and distinctive holiday we have. (Oddly, the most anti-Christmas Christians in former times are the most zealous celebrants of the holiday today. A 2017 poll showed that evangelical Christians are more likely than Catholics or mainline Protestants to celebrate Christmas as a “strongly religious” holiday. It’s a finding that, for different reasons, would surprise and appall both Cotton Mather and Cardinal Newman.) Christmas has become a melting pot of traditions and ideas. It’s sometimes hard to know which pieces of Christmas come from the Bible (shepherds, manger, baby, parents, angels, wise men), what comes from paganism (Christmas trees, mistletoe, lights, logs, presents), what comes from pious legends with little or no historical or biblical basis (animals, the association of St. Nicholas with gifts, crowns for racially integrated wise men named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), what from medieval custom (manger scenes, carol singing), what comes from sentimental Victorian literature (named reindeer, flying sleigh, Santa Claus as a fat and jolly elf, Tiny Tim), and what comes from modern commercialism (dreaming of a white Christmas, Rudolf, the little drummer boy, Black Friday, the Grinch). There are parts of Christmas (like Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and the whole gift-industrial complex) that non-Christians around the world have embraced with a sometimes terrifying enthusiasm; there are other parts—like fruitcakes—that everybody hates but that somehow refuse to die.
In a further wrinkle, many of America’s most beloved modern Christmas songs are written by Jews. “White Christmas” is by Irving Berlin, for example, and the author of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” came from a secular Jewish home in New Rochelle. But American Jews are no stranger to the Christmas celebration. A recent Pew poll of American Jews tells us that one in three had a Christmas tree in the house. The country that has everything even has a klezmer Christmas album: You can get the Klezmonauts’ “Oy to the World” at Amazon.
Christmas, meanwhile, reigns as both the world’s most popular and universal modern holiday and the world’s most repressed and despised one. The spirit of St. Francis is still very much with us; the pulpits of Christendom thunder every December with orations urging us to turn away from the secular festivities at the mall and spend more time and energy on the “true spirit of the season.” Some of the pushback is more in the spirit of Cotton Mather and John Winthrop: Religious zealots and scripture-thumping clerics in much of the Islamic world today frown on both the secular and the religious celebration of the day. In Iraq in 2013, Christmas morning brought the news that “at least” 38 people had been killed in bomb attacks in the Christian neighborhoods of Baghdad. Three years later, gunmen attacked two Christian-owned shops in Baghdad and killed several people only two days before Christmas. Last year was the first time that many Iraqi Christians were able to celebrate Christmas in years. In 2015, the Sultan of Brunei won the Sanctimonious Grinch award for banning public Christmas celebrations in his Sharia-governed, oil-rich enclave on Borneo. More seriously, Christians in countries like (northern) Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran live in fear and, overall, Christians remain the most persecuted major religious faith in the world.
In some of the countries in the Arabic-speaking world, all public expression of Christian faith is banned by law, and putting up so much as a holiday wreath or a picture of Santa Claus where the public can see is strictly verboten. In Gaza, Palestinian Christians from time to time report persecution from Islamic extremists. Disturbing reports from Egypt in recent years tell of increased trouble for the largest remaining Christian minority in the Middle East. In Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, Christians continue to face violence, discrimination, and suspicion. ISIS has martyred dozens of Christians and sold many into slavery. Based on current trends, the twenty-first century could well be the century in which the long Christian presence in the Middle East comes to an end; the tide of violence continues to rise, and Christians are getting out where they can.
There is, alas, nothing new about the association of Christmas and persecution. The original historical figure on whom Santa Claus is based was a martyr: St. Nicholas, an early Christian bishop based in what is now Turkey who lived 300 years after Jesus and whose legendary generosity and good deeds led to his metamorphosis into the modern figure of Santa Claus. Nicholas was persecuted for his faith under the Roman Emperor Diocletian. (Bones reputed to be those of St. Nicholas are currently enshrined in a church in Bari, Italy; the Turks want them back as, apparently, the local authorities in the city where he died believe that the bones of Santa Claus would be good for the tourist trade.) In 2016, however, Turkish authorities reportedly banned all forms of Christmas celebration in local schools; St. Nicholas would not now be welcome in the land of his birth.
Two thousand years after the birth of Jesus, Christians still face persecution in many countries around the world. Boko Haram killed more than a dozen people in Nigeria on Christmas Day in 2015. Despite the Vatican’s provisional agreement with Beijing, my colleague Nina Shea notes that the Chinese government continues to persecute the more than 100 million Christians in China. In South Asia, mob violence can still be a problem in both India and Pakistan. On my visits to Pakistan, local Christians have taken me quietly aside to talk about the climate of fear in which they live. In 2010, Indian Christians reported an ominous new trend toward attacks and arrests of Christians timed to coincide with major Christian holidays, including Christmas.
There are a number of organizations working to promote religious freedom for both Christians and non-Christians around the world. An end of year gift might be one nice way to celebrate the season and promote religious toleration. One in particular with whose work I am familiar seems both responsible and wise; the Institute for Global Engagement works effectively with both religious and political figures in many countries around the world to find solutions to problems of religious intolerance. Another outfit, one with a particular focus on the Middle East—and a Providence publisher—is the Philos Project.
Looking at the long history of vicious persecution of Christian dissidents and non-Christians by church and state authorities throughout Europe and the Byzantine world, Christians cannot feel smug about the record of the faith. Nevertheless, even as Christians and others suffer persecution in so much of the world today, we can take some satisfaction in seeing that in almost all of the historic lands of the Christian faith, Christian and non-Christian religious minorities alike are more free than ever to practice and proclaim their beliefs without fear of persecution.
Religious tolerance for minorities in our midst—including people without religious faith—respect for the dignity of all human beings, solidarity with Christians and others wickedly persecuted for their beliefs around the world: these are three of the gifts we can bring to the manger on Christmas Day, and one somehow thinks both Mother and Child would prefer them to yet more gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Meanwhile, we are left to contemplate one of the many paradoxes of the season: it is the commercial, consumerist side of Christmas that has won the most acceptance worldwide, while the faith that St. Francis hoped to promote can still get you in trouble. Santa Claus is welcome where the baby Jesus is not. Santa Clauses, reindeer, and elves prance freely through the streets of Tokyo where few have ever really thought about the Christian religion. American public schools with zero tolerance for manger scenes revel in an orgy of seasonal Santa kitsch.
What makes this holiday so irresistible and global, yet also so particular and controversial? Why do so many people love Christmas while rejecting or in some cases actively hating Christianity? And why do so many others hate Christianity (or fear Christians) so deeply that they want to suppress all public celebration, however secular, of the symbols of Christmas?
For that matter, why do so many followers of the man who famously blessed the poor celebrate His birthday with the greatest spending sprees the world has ever known? How did the birthday of a crucified religious teacher become an excuse to drink eggnog?
Christmas is anything but simple; I invite readers to join me here at the Yule Blog as we reflect together on the meaning of the world’s most famous and most controversial feast.
Walter Russell Mead, a Providence contributing editor, is the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, Editor-at-Large of The American Interest, and a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is the author of numerous books, including Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World.