Christmas Controversies 2.0

A commentary on Christmas controversies.

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Christmas 2015 Starbucks controversy

During the 2015 Christmas season, I wrote a post titled Christmas Controversies. One of the quarrels I talked about in that post involved the Starbucks company, a disputation known as the Red Cup Controversy. Previous to 2015, Starbucks had red holiday cups decorated with snowflakes, Christmas ornaments or reindeer but in 2015 the company came out with red cups with just its green logo on it. Starbuck’s reason for the change was to embrace “simplicity and quietness.” As with any controversy, the Christian traditionalists saw this as an attempt to diminish the importance of Christmas.

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2016 Starbucks controversy from Huffington Post

It seems Starbucks is once again surrounded with Christmas controversy in 2016. The Huffington Post has an article called, People Are Raging Mad That Starbucks’ Newest Cups Aren’t Red, that reports Starbucks introduced a new green cup featuring a “mosaic of more than a hundred people drawn in one continuous stroke,” which the company says represents community and unity in a time of political divisiveness. Like last year many people are reacting with anger claiming this year that the holiday cup is threatened. Personally, I like the message that Starbucks is attempting to deliver. If you think about it, the message of “community and unity in a time of political divisiveness” is an appropriate message during Christmas. Thomas S. Monson, an American religious leader, says, “the spirit of Christmas is the spirit of love and of generosity and of goodness. It illuminates the picture window of the soul, and we look out upon the world’s busy life and become more interested in people than in things”.

Now I agree with Mr. Monson. If this is what Christmas is about then Starbuck’s message of unity is very much a Christmas message. It’s important to understand that the kind of love that Mr. Monson is talking about is what the Greeks call agape love. This is the highest form of love. It’s the kind of love that the Christian bible speaks of. It’s the kind of love that Jesus spoke of and modelled. It is selfless love. Agape love is unconditional love; a love that transcends and operates regardless of circumstances. It should not be confused with what the Greeks called philia, which means brotherly love.   Divisiveness can only be overcome with unconditional love so Starbuck’s message of “community and unity” is most certainly a Christmas message.

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Scene from “Hipster Nativity” set

Crux, an independent Catholic news site, has an article called, Retail ‘Hipster Nativity’ scene stirs controversy. This controversy is most interesting. This Nativity set, called the “Hipster Nativity” set features Joseph sporting a lumberjack beard as well as a man bun while using his iPhone to selfie the moment as the Segway-riding wise men present baby Jesus with amazon.com boxes. Now I can understand this controversy and why traditionalists might be angered by it. Upon first reading about this controversy, my reaction was, “this makes fun of the manger scene, a sacred Christmas symbol”. But then I thought about it. Maybe we North Americans are just too uptight. Maybe we just need to relax and look at things differently. So, that is what I did. Firstly, if you think about it, this nativity scene is a true commentary about our society. We are a technological and materialistic society. Maybe there is a message for our Western civilization. Maybe the “Hipster Nativity” set is a metaphor reminding us that consumerism is the cause of our divisiveness.  Secondly, if God is a loving God (that is what Christians believe, isn’t it?) would God care about such dissension? The Christian scriptures tell us in 1 John 4:8, “whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love”. Think about that. God’s very essence is love. Now we’re not referring to romantic love here. The kind of love that the biblical passage is referring to is agape love which means unconditional love, the kind of love that God has for humanity. The bottom line is, if God is an unconditionally loving God, then God would not be offended by the “Hipster Nativity” set. In fact, God is likely having a good laugh. Maybe we should too.

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Santa VS Jesus card game from Amazon

Another interesting controversy is reported by Yahoo News called, This Season’s Most Controversial Holiday Card Game: Santa verses Jesus.  This is a “tongue-in-cheek” card game based on the question; who actually rules Christmas? Is it Santa or is it Jesus?  The creators of Santa VS Jesus Card Game, one of the top-selling card games on Amazon.com in the United Kingdom, splits players into two teams which go head-to-head in an attempt to win the most believers. This determines who will rule Christmas. The two sides, Team Santa and Team Jesus undergo Christmas themed challenges (puzzles, riddles, brainteasers) to win over believers. IBT’s article, Is ‘Santa VS Jesus’ Board Game Blasphemous? discusses the controversy. The article quotes Danny Webster, a spokesperson for the Evangelical Alliance UK, who says the game “trivializes Christian belief and equates them both as fictional characters.”  So once again I ask; Are we North Americans just too uptight?  Let’s look at this controversy differently. Maybe this game is really a blessing in disguise. Maybe it forces people to take a good look at Christmas and what the holiday is all about. Is it a holiday about gift giving, which is what Santa is all about, or is it about Jesus, a holiday where Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus? Whether you believe Jesus is the son of God, as Christians do, or that Jesus is one of many ascended masters (spiritually enlightened beings) or just a man who had a message worth paying attention to, it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is Christmas is about the “Spirit of Christmas” which is about love; agape love actually. It is a season to remind us that we humans need to be inclusive, joyful and most importantly unconditionally loving.  In other words, the very message Jesus delivered.

We can get so caught up in the mentality that Christmas is being attacked instead of paying attention to what is important. What is important you ask? I think the Baha’i faith has it figured out. This is a faith that emphasizes the unity of humanity transcending all divisions of race, nation, gender, caste, and social class, while celebrating its diversity. Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith wrote, “The earth is but one country, and [hu]mankind its citizens.” Abdu’l-Baha’s, his eldest son, enhanced the message with the “unification of [hu]mankind” has now become “the paramount issue and question in the religious and political conditions of the world.” If we look at what has been occurring in our world recently we can clearly see that divisiveness is alive and well. The American presidential election was one of the most divisive in history. Brexit is another example of European divisiveness rather than unity.  I believe the Baha’i faith has the true Christmas message. We are all part of the human family and therefore we are called to unite through agape love. That is what Christmas is about!

What is the Meaning of Christmas?

If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that I have always had some struggles with the consumerism of Christmas. I grew up with six siblings and parents who didn’t have much money. We always received gifts for Christmas, but they were simple gifts like farm sets and matchbox vehicles. Truth be told, we were happy with the gifts given to us, even though they were not the biggest or newest toys on the market at the time. Being an adult for some time now, I’ve witnessed family and friends giving extravagant gifts worth hundreds or thousands of dollars, and I have always thought how ridiculous this seemed as it was proof for me of the rampant consumerism that occurred at Christmas time.

People’s struggles with consumerism have been going on a long time. In 1965, an animated television special based on the comic strip Peanuts, by Charles M. Schulz, debuted for the first time on television. The special was called A Charlie Brown Christmas and this was a cartoon that really addressed the issue of consumerism at Christmas.

51ACRI9SIYL._SX940_In the cartoon, Charlie Brown knows that he should be happy, but he isn’t. He believes that commercialism is the problem. He struggles with his younger sister Sally who wants him to help her with her Christmas letter to Santa, where she dictates, “I have been extra good this year, so I have a long list of presents that I want. Please note the size and color of each item, and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself: just send money. How about tens and twenties?” He is also conflicted when Snoopy enters a Christmas decorating contest and wins a cash prize.

Charlie doesn’t know what to do about it all. When Lucy suggests that he direct the Christmas play, Charlie Brown hopes to find the true meaning of Christmas in the process. Even that doesn’t seem to work. One of the last pieces for the play is to get a Christmas tree as the set centerpiece. Charlie Brown, along with Linus, takes on the task with his entire cast wanting him to pick out a nice aluminum tree. Instead, Charlie Brown chooses a small, frail looking real tree, which when he tries to decorate it  he believes he has failed.

Even Linus declares, “Christmas is not only getting too commercial, it’s getting too dangerous.” Linus’ sister Lucy tells Charlie, “Look, Charlie, let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.” The cartoon is about Charlie Brown who is trying to obtain the real meaning of Christmas, which he believes is eclipsed by commercialism.

No one speaks of consumerism around Christmas better than Cal Thomas, an American syndicated columnist who often writes from a Christian perspective. Mr. Thomas recognized uncomfortable truths about Christmas in his December 2003 column. In his column he wrote:

“I’m not sure it’s worth keeping Christmas anymore. Oh, it is fine for those apparently dwindling numbers of us who still believe in the “original cast” of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Wise Men and the animals. They, as any post-Thanksgiving (not to mention postmodern) shopper knows, have been replaced by the road show of reindeer, winter scenes, elves and the God substitute, Santa Claus, who serves as a front for merchants seeking to play on the guilt some parents bear for ignoring their kids the rest of the year…

Why participate any longer in this charade where the focal point of worship has shifted from a babe in a manger to a babe in the Victoria’s Secret window? From gold, frankincense and myrrh to Bailey Banks & Biddle? No room in the inn has been replaced by no room in the mall parking lot. If God would get a lawyer out of hell, He might be justified in suing for copyright infringement. His great story has been hijacked and transformed into its opposite.”

Even though the column was written twelve years ago, Mr. Thomas still echoes the sentiment that many people feel today. Add to that the desire by some for political correctness or the mentality of some that we cannot say “Merry Christmas” for fear that we might offend non-Christians; that the politically correct thing is to say “Happy Holidays.”  The Bible Society of Australia conducted some research in 2011 about the Australian public’s attitude towards Christmas. 70% of Australian believers think the true meaning of Christmas has been lost. Their research also discovered that 51.9% of ‘non-Christians’ think that the true meaning of Christmas has been lost. (see Loosing the meaning of Christmas). So that begs the question, what is the true meaning of Christmas? Is Christmas just about giving gifts as our consumerist society wants us to believe?  I’ve been reflecting on this question for some time now and I have come to the conclusion that Christmas is really about love.

img_3204In 1995, Dr. Gary Chapman published a book called, Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, a book I read a few years ago. Here is a quick summary of the five love languages as described by the Verily website.

  1. Words of Affirmation: Actions don’t always speak louder than words. If this is your love language, unsolicited compliments mean the world to you. Hearing the words, “I love you,” are important—hearing the reasons behind that love sends your spirits skyward. Insults can leave you shattered and are not easily forgotten.

  2. Quality Time: In the vernacular of Quality Time, nothing says, “I love you,” like full, undivided attention. Being there for this type of person is critical, but really being there—with the TV off, fork and knife down, and all chores and tasks on standby—makes your significant other feel truly special and loved. Distractions, postponed dates, or the failure to listen can be especially hurtful.

  3. Receiving Gifts: Don’t mistake this love language for materialism; the receiver of gifts thrives on the love, thoughtfulness, and effort behind the gift. If you speak this language, the perfect gift or gesture shows that you are known, you are cared for, and you are prized above whatever was sacrificed to bring the gift to you. A missed birthday, anniversary, or a hasty, thoughtless gift would be disastrous—so would the absence of everyday gestures.

  4. Acts of Service: Can vacuuming the floors really be an expression of love? Absolutely! Anything you do to ease the burden of responsibilities weighing on an “Acts of Service” person will speak volumes. The words he or she most wants to hear: “Let me do that for you.” Laziness, broken commitments, and making more work for them tell speakers of this language their feelings don’t matter.

  5. Physical Touch: This language isn’t all about the bedroom. A person whose primary language is Physical Touch is, not surprisingly, very touchy. Hugs, pats on the back, holding hands, and thoughtful touches on the arm, shoulder, or face—they can all be ways to show excitement, concern, care, and love. Physical presence and accessibility are crucial, while neglect or abuse can be unforgivable and destructive.

I have always thought that there was a lot of merit to Dr. Chapman’s Five Love Languages. How does Christmas fit in with Dr. Chapman’s love languages? Well, after thinking about it, it turns out that Christmas addresses all the languages of love. Let’s have a look at each.

  1. Words of Affirmation: Giving affirmations are part of the Christmas tradition. Compliments such as “that Christmas dinner was delicious” or “You look great” are freely given. Christmas cards are sent out each year expressing sentiments of love to others. Christmas letters do the same thing. This does not include the affirmations we give when we greet our loved ones when visiting them at Christmas. Words of affirmation have always been a part of the Christmas tradition and still are.
  2. Quality Time: Christmas is about spending quality time with family. The Bible Society Australia research I mentioned earlier discovered that 94% of Australians liked spending time with loved ones at Christmas. I know of individuals that only see their loved ones at Christmas time. To quote Burton Hillis, “The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other. Quality time is unquestionably an important part of the Christmas tradition.
  3. Receiving Gifts: Not much needs to be said about this love language. The biggest aspect of Christmas is gift giving. It has always been this way. However, that doesn’t mean that gifts have to be worth enormous amounts of money. Mother Teresa once said, “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.”
  4. Acts of Service: Christmas is also a time when people do something special for others. It might be buying an extra gift to donate to Santa’s Anonymous. It might be conducting a food bank drive. Christmas seems to be a time that brings out the “goodness” in people. In my community, one family puts on a Christmas dinner for those less fortunate in the community. Acts of Service are a part of the Christmas tradition.
  5. Physical Touch: I can’t speak for everyone, but my experience of Christmas has always been filled with lots of hugs and kisses from loved ones. People seem extra happy at Christmas and therefore seem more willing to express their feelings through physical touch That could be a hug or a kiss or at the very least a hand shake.  Dacher Keltner in his article Hands on Research says, “the science of touch convincingly suggests that we’re wired to; we need to connect with other people on a basic physical level. To deny that is to deprive ourselves of some of life’s greatest joys and deepest comforts.” Physical touch is a critical part of the Christmas tradition.

So after much reflection on the topic, I’ve come to the conclusion that Christmas is more than the consumerism that I’ve been dwelling on. It’s more than gift giving. Christmas brings out the best in people. Christmas is a time that brings forth more love into the world. Christmas is about a spirit of love, otherwise known as the Christmas spirit.

The Christ child is a symbol of love, hope and peace that creates a joyful season. For Christian believers its more than a symbol. For non-believers the child is a symbol of love. Perhaps Linus Van Pelt expressed what Christmas is all about best when he said, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'”

Christmas is an attitude. It’s a time when we allow the spirit of Christmas that inspires us to give and receive. That can be in the form of acts of kindness, giving gifts, saying a kind word, smiling at a stranger,  giving hugs freely, or visiting someone you haven’t seen in a long time. Calvin Coolidge says it best when he said, “Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy [I prefer to say compassion], is to have the real spirit of Christmas.” The true meaning of Christmas is about a change in attitude. It’s about allowing the spirit of love, otherwise known as the Christmas spirit, to take hold of us.

Christmas Controversies

Every year as the Christmas season approaches controversies erupt around political correctness and tolerance. This year there was the Starbucks controversy (see Red Cup Controversy) , which monopolized imageheadlines in November. The company typically has its red holiday cups decorated with snowflakes, Christmas ornaments or reindeer, but chose for a minimalist design this year with cups that are red with nothing but its green logo. Starbucks executives said they wanted to embrace “simplicity and quietness.” However some Christian conservatives saw these new cups as an attempt to diminish the importance of Christmas.

Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 10.50.33 AMAnother controversy occurred in Oakville, Washington, a town of 700 people who typically celebrates Christmas without controversy (see Christmas Message Sparks Controversy).  This year volunteer firefighters at Grays Harbor Fire District No.1 put a biblical message on their sign. The sign outside the fire station read, “Unto us a savior is born. Merry Christmas.” So when someone complained the fire commissioner ordered the sign to come down and their Christmas tree turned off.

I understand some of the thinking around these controversies. After all we live in a multicultural country and it is important to be sensitive to the different cultures around us. In fact, Canada celebrates multiculturalism and has officially made multiculturalism it’s policy. In 1971, then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the father of Canada’s present prime minister, Justin Trudeau, acknowledged its commitment to the principle of multiculturalism and formalized a policy to protect and promote diversity. Canada was the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy. This policy affirmed the value and dignity of all Canadian citizens regardless of their racial or ethnic origins, their language, or their religious affiliation.

In 1988, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act was enacted by then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. This Act has two fundamental principles:

  1. All citizens are equal and have the freedom to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage.
  2. Multiculturalism promotes the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in all aspects of Canadian society.

The United States does not have any kind of act recognizing its multicultural diversity that I am aware of, but nonetheless, like Canada, it is a country made up of immigrants and therefore it’s society encompasses many cultures.

So I get it (I think). I understand the need to be sensitive to other religious traditions and cultures. After all, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act states, “Citizens…have the freedom to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage.” So the way I see it, Christmas is a time for Christians to share their religious heritage.

Christmas is celebrated on December 25th and is the day when Christians celebrate the birth of Yeshua or Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is regarded by most Christians as the Son of God and the savior of humanity. It seems every year there are some people who take offense to Christians expressing this belief.  Christians should not feel stifled in any way when celebrating one of their biggest festivals!

250px-Menorah_0307The Jewish tradition celebrates Hanukkah or the “Feast of Dedication,” also known as the “Festival of Lights”.  This festival is celebrated on the 8th day of December and it is a time when Jewish people recall a miracle in the Jerusalem temple during a war fought by the Maccabees for the cause of religious freedom. Temple candles only had enough oil to burn for a single day. Yet they burned for eight days. Jews light candles on a menorah, two on the first day, three on the second, to nine on the eighth day. Jews should not feel restricted in any way when celebrating Hanukkah. In fact, this celebration should be encouraged. Perhaps in addition to Starbucks having cups with Christmas decorations on it, the company should also include cups with the menorah on it.

Also on December 8th, or on the Sunday immediately preceding it, the Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day. This day recalls the day in 596 BCE, when Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha (meaning enlightened one) sat beneath a Bodhi tree and is believed to have achieved enlightenment, thus escaping the repeating cycle of reincarnation: involving birth, life, death and rebirth. Being this is an important day for the Buddhists, why not have some Starbucks cups with Bodhi trees on them in December as well. This would be a great way to educate people about the various religious traditions among us and maybe even build religious tolerance, which is so badly needed in our world.

For Muslims, Eid al-Adha is a significant annual Islamic observance for many Muslims around the world. It is also known as the Feast of Sacrifice or Festival of Sacrifice or Day of Sacrifice as it commemorates Ibrahim’s (Abraham) willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Eid al-Adha is a happy occasion that many Muslims celebrate. It is around the 10th to the 13th days of the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah (or Dhul Hijja). This is the twelfth and final month in the Islamic calendar. It is a very sacred month in the Islamic calendar, one in which Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) takes place. It is a time marked by special prayers and many Muslims gather for special prayer services. Many people also visit family and friends, exchange greetings and gifts, and make donations to the poor. It is also a time for forgiveness and compassion. Doesn’t that sound a lot like Christians at Christmas? At Christmas don’t people gather for special prayer services, visit family and friends, and exchange greetings and gifts?

In 2006, 2007, and 2008, Eid al-Adha was celebrated in December. These holy days have left December, but will return in about three decades. Why not have some Starbucks cups commemorating this Islamic festival during the month when it is celebrated. This would be a great way to educate people about Islam especially during a time in history when Islamophobia is rampant. Why not?

We can get so caught up in political correctness or the mentality that we might offend non-Christians if we celebrate Christmas publicly. These festivals should be celebrated publicly and acclaimed with pride. I am not referring to just the Christian festivals but all religious festivals. Instead of being afraid to offend someone, companies such as Starbucks, should be willing to acknowledge these festivals when they occur and their cups should acknowledge the festival of whichever religious celebration is occurring. Maybe I’m being naive, I don’t know. Maybe this is easier said than done, but it seems to me that this would be a way to educate people about the various religions of the world and a way to build religious tolerance rather than contributing to fear and resentment of other religious traditions.