2009-12-18 / Columnists

Rock Solid

The Debate Over Christmas
Commentary By Vivian Rattay Carter

It's the week before Christmas … and all through the world … no one's thinking of anything but … how many days 'til it's over? Time to write about the controversial subject of "the holiday season." With apologies, it's the "dark side of Christmas."

Are you a person who believes in Jesus Christ? How about God? Allah? Buddha? Reincarnation of people as plants and animals? Do you worship money? Art? Music? Christmas is great, because there's something for everyone here.

I was raised in the Roman Cath olic faith, but did not worship regularly as an adult until about two years ago, when I found the First Congregational Church of Rock away Beach, part of the United Church of Christ. The UCC is made up of four groups that united over fifty years ago, when the Congre - gational and Christian churches in North America joined with the Evan - gelical and Reformed churches. All four groups had a commonality within the Protestant tradition — they were all formed by rebels and reformers who moved to the U.S. for religious freedom or were trying to escape the social orthodoxy of their day. Think Pilgrims, Puri tans, Germans, Swiss, and Ar - men ians. Today, both gays and divorced people find a welcome in the UCC. Congregations are democratic in governance, and free to act in accordance with their members' decisions. The UCC has given me the freedom to choose an alternative to the status quo that was handed to me.

But the question is — how does this relate to Christmas, the holiday?

For that one, I had to do a little research. Thanks to The History Channel for the background on how Christmas originated. We often foolishly presume that the things handed down from generation to generation have always existed — that the things we received with our mother's milk have always been — and will always be.

The facts show that Christmas was not even celebrated in the U.S. until the 1870s. It was observed in Europe, dating back to the fourth century, and one could argue that the influx of immigrants from Ire land, Poland and other Catholic countries brought the tradition here, or at least created a popular swell in favor of establishing it. As everyone knows, there are strong pagan roots around the holiday, with the timing of the event at or around the winter solstice being the most apparent.

The earliest Chris tians commemorated the death and resurrection of Christ at the Easter holiday, but did not celebrate his birthday. The forebears of the UCC, the Pilgrims and the Puritans, opposed Christmas as celebrated in Europe, and the holiday was actually banned in Boston from 1659-1681.

Yes, Virginia - Americans invented Christmas as we know it, and it grew up, side by side, with the free enterprise system. Does this somehow strip Christmas of what is lovely? No, not if viewed in the most charitable light. Sending a card, letter or email blast to reconnect with loved ones once a year is to be commended. Holiday food and toy drives and fund raisers for medical research encourage the best in the human spirit to shine. People donate their time, money, ideas and talent, and many hours of hard work go into these events. That is heartwarming. But even secular humanists do it. What does it have to do with Jesus Christ?

I have been fascinated by the subject of religion for over thirty-five years. If I had been raised in the Protestant tradition, I might have been a candidate for the ministry. But every Catholic bone in my body was startled into en - lightenment one day in 1974 by the late Professor Edmund Perry, who walked into a lecture hall in Evanston, Illinois, dropped a huge Bible to the floor, and jumped on it, shouting in his best Southern Baptist preacher drawl: "I STAND UPON THE WORD OF GOD!" When I think back on the formative experiences of my life, that is one of the key moments. Intellectually, Dr. Perry challenged us to read the historical records carefully and think critically about what we found. I learned to think of Jesus as a man, as well as my God.

The historical research I trust tells me that Jesus was a religious revolutionary who was crucified because he challenged the political and religious power structure of his day. But he was not trying to provoke rebellion against the Roman authorities. I believe he was trying to teach people to love one another and to glorify God's creation through their lives. He tried to get people to think. His disciples were just men who wrote down the stories of his life and took some artistic license. As I read the Bible, I discern that believers in Christ are called to create more just social structures here on Earth, which is often a challenge to the status quo.

Many have been asking for a long time whether Christmas, as practiced in our society, is a good or a bad thing. The church I belong to gives me the freedom to believe what I wish without fear of excommunication.

I think that it is wonderful to commemorate Christ's birth and the beauty in the hol iday lies within. Do you focus on loving others and glorifying God's creation? Or do you use the holiday as a means to promote yourself or your business? This year, I confess I'm doing too much of the latter.

It's not about "What's in Your Wal let?" but "What's in Your Heart?"

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