Flesh and Spirit Wage Yuletide War

December 23, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- The winter solstice is past, the hours of light grow daily longer. In many faiths this is a time of renewed hope and important ritual. Here it has become the most anti-religious season of the year.

That's anti-religious, not irreligious. Religious trappings, of course, are everywhere, which is part of the problem. The Christmas season as currently conducted in most of our country does for spirituality what Sister Boom-Boom does nationally for the cause of gay rights, or what Jackie McLean does locally for the reputation of Baltimore's municipal government.

The flesh and the spirit have been fighting over Christmas for centuries, so this isn't a new concern, but in modern times the struggle has taken on a new look. Once the major threat to spirituality in the Christmas season was said to be gluttony, as represented by the suckling pig and the wassail bowl. But in the era of tofu and mineral water, retailing is a greater challenge to the proprieties than feasting.

Every year in late September, Old Lady Commerce strides onto center stage, tarted up in red and green and whistling Christmas music, trying her best to look devout. She succeeds about as well as a nun in a G-string, but we're all so used to her now that hardly anyone objects.

Around the same time, the public-interest lawyers start their annual Christmas campaign on behalf of the common good. They do this by seeking out those little sparks of vindictiveness and dissension that always smolder in every democracy's underbrush, and painstakingly fanning them into flame. If a passing maniac should then happen to throw gasoline into the fire, causing an explosion, the lawyers are shocked, and pass out their business cards.

The Puritan theocrats of the Plymouth colony, who considered Christmas celebrations to be impious if not completely pagan, simply banned them. It would be interesting, if it were possible, to invite a few of those flinty souls to return for a visit, almost 400 years later, to witness Christmas in the 1990s.

Increase Mather, say hello to Stuart Berger. Dr. Berger will be your guide on our tour. He will show you how we separate the spiritual from the secular, a task you had to tackle in your day. Of course, today it's the spiritual that we ban and the secular that we preserve, but the process is the same.

It's Dr. Berger's responsibility to evaluate the religious significance of The Christmas season as currently conducted in most of our country does for spirituality what Sister Boom-Boom does nationally for the cause of gay rights, or what Jackie McLean does locally for the reputation of Baltimore's municipal government.

each and every exhibition of bad taste proposed by various pressure groups for display on the grounds of the long-suffering Baltimore County public schools. Watch closely as he makes his rulings.

Frosty the Snowman? Thumbs up. A manger scene featuring a fiberglass Baby Jesus electronically pulsing with celestial light? Thumbs down. A menorah? A pensive thumb in the mouth, while official opinion ponders whether the cultural import of this symbol outweighs its religious significance. Hey, even First Amendment scholars have doctrinal arguments. How many constitutional lawyers can dance on the head of a pin, and how should they be compensated for doing so?

Our own household, while conventionally secular, is nonetheless bicultural in its traditions, in its attitudes toward religion, and in its response to Christmas. One spouse is Jewish, the other what might be called Christian Agnostic. Neither attends regular services, but each absorbed enough ritual in youth to have been permanently -- and on the whole positively -- imprinted. This results in some healthy differences of opinion.

One spouse thinks Christmas as practiced in modern America an affront to non-Christians. She believes firmly that overtly Christian displays are inappropriate on public property or in public proceedings. On the other hand, she takes a libertarian view of the noisy torrent of para-Christianity spouted forth by private sources such as radio stations and supermarket loudspeakers. It may be offensive, but she doesn't challenge its constitutionality.

Her husband, who shares much of her annoyance at the excesses of the season, has a different perspective. He considers Christmas, like the English language, the Bible used in the inaugural ceremonies of our presidents, and the non-denominational prayers no longer allowed in the public schools, to be a useful force for cohesion in American life.

There are ample constitutional protections for those who prefer not to participate, but there is little to gain by driving Christmas forcibly out of our public institutions. So he thinks when he's waxing philosophical, anyway. When he comes home after a visit to the mall in mid-December, however, he's likely to say something quite different.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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