Culture warriors cloud the spirit of the season

December 12, 2005|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- Some years ago, my husband was a last-minute draft pick to play the role of godfather at a young friend's naming ceremony. Admittedly, his relationship to organized religion was a bit dicey, but you know how it is in the understudy business.

At the end of the ceremony, he leaned over and stage-whispered into the ear of the infant the promise that her training as a Druid would now commence.

You may be relieved to know that Laura was raised in a somewhat more traditional church. But now it appears that her few homilies on Druidry might come in handy.

This year, as you may know, a Christmas tree donated by Nova Scotia arrived in Boston disguised as a holiday tree. After much too much ado, it was finally lit as a Christmas tree. Meanwhile, in Washington, the Capitol Holiday Tree was also rechristened by Dennis Hastert as the Capitol Christmas Tree. In Georgia, the tree at the governor's mansion underwent a similar conversion.

In short, the sacred and co-opted evergreens of the Druids have become the symbols of the purist Christmas Christians. Somebody hug a tree for me - here we go again.

There are a dwindling number of battling days until Christmas. The malls are filled with so much Christmas Muzak that we are all longing for a silent night. Nevertheless, we are again treated to the notion that Christmas is besieged by the forces of diversity and secularism.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty Counsel is running a "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign." James Dobson's Alliance Defense Fund is running a "Christmas Project" with the motto: "Merry Christmas. It's OK to say it." Fox News' John Gibson has killed who knows how many trees to print The War on Christmas. The combined forces of the Catholic League, the American Family Association and Bill O'Reilly have accused Target and others of banning Christmas by wishing their customers a "Happy Holiday."

And to top it all off, the Committee for Justice is running ads that promote Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. as a sort of Father Christmas figure who will defend religion.

The Christmas defense team is portraying its side as the overwhelming majority, the 90 percent who celebrate Christmas. Yet they are describing themselves as oppressed, indeed victimized. They want more Christ in Christmas; yet they want more Christmas in the marketplace.

The last real war against Christmas was, in fact, a religious war. It was waged in my hometown by Puritans who banned mince pies and plum puddings and declared that celebrating Christmas was a criminal offense. In 1711, Cotton Mather gave his famous lecture against "mad mirth," "long-eating," hard-drinking and reveling "fit for not but a Saturn or Bacchus."

As for American history, let us remember that Congress convened on the first Christmas of the new republic, Dec. 25, 1789. Christmas wasn't a federal holiday until 1870.

I admit to being bemused with today's one-size-fits-all "holiday" season. How did the celebration of the birth of Christ elevate Hanukkah from minor- to major-league status?

But living in an extended family as well as a country that celebrates holidays that range from Hanukkah and Christmas to the Chinese New Year with stops along the way for Druidism, I also understand why "holiday" appears on everything from the president's greeting card - with three pets frolicking in the snow - to the office party. Conversely, one of the hallmarks of the culture wars is the way tolerance of diverse beliefs is reframed as intolerance for the majority.

If the religious right is worrying about the erosion of Christmas, maybe it should focus more on the mega churches around the country that colluded to close on Sunday, Dec. 25, for fear they wouldn't have enough customers. Christmas, they demurred, is a family day. Happy Family Day to you?

The war against Christmas? How about a little peace on Earth?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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