The holiday specials and Christmas ads start earlier and earlier each year, and so, it seems, does America’s annual Christmas War. Across the land, store employees moved fake trees and inflatable Santas to the front of their stores before Columbus Day while agonizing over how to greet shoppers this December.
Personally, I wish we could all lighten up a bit. I am pleased when others wish me Happy Hanukkah, Ramadan Mubarak, Good Yule, or Blessed Kwanza. I don’t mind it all when somebody says, “Happy Holidays,” but I feel free to wish agnostics and Sikhs a Merry Christmas. Telling Christians not to say this is as offensive as telling Hindus they cannot wish others a Happy Diwali—a violation of First Amendment rights to exercise our religion freely.
What is surreal about this debate, though, is that Jesus, whose birth Christians celebrate at Christmas, probably would not care very much how the guy in front of MegaMart greets us. Sure, he told his followers not to be ashamed of acknowledging him, but he also was pretty clear about his priorities: he wants us to care for “the least of these, my brothers and sisters.”
Perhaps Jesus might feel honored to be remembered by people giving elegantly-wrapped gifts, and I suspect that he loved the New York Fire Department’s loud parade through our neighborhood in Harlem. But he surely cares far more about other things: whether we build homes for other children who are born into a world there where is “no room in the inn,” whether we feed the hungry, whether we clothe those who shiver “in the deep midwinter,” whether we provide health care for those who are sick—and all too often uninsured—and whether we see the imprisoned, the orphan, the widow, and the sojourners among us as our brothers and sisters. As Howard Thurman put it in The Mood of Christmas:
“When the song of the angels is still, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flock, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost; to heal the broken; to feed the hungry; to release the prisoner; to rebuild the nations; to bring peace . . . to make music in the heart.”
This year, you might remember “the least of these” in your prayers over the holidays. Or give food and warm clothing to the poor and homeless. Or demand decent housing for all our brothers and sisters.