The opening shot was fired early this year (a full three weeks before the start of Advent) when the U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced a 15-cent surcharge on live Christmas trees.
The Drudge Report quickly dubbed it the sinister “Christmas Tree Tax," even though the fee was supported by — and in fact requested by — the National Christmas Tree Association as a way to raise funds to promote the use of live trees over fake trees. The surcharge was never intended to be passed along to consumers, apparently.
The news had conservative pundits in a tizzy, with screaming headlines such as “Obama’s War on Christianity Continues" on NewsMax, and "Scrooge Comes Early This Year" on Forbes.com. The Atlantic called the tree fee "The Worst Public Relations Idea of the Year, or Ever?"
(The so-called Christmas Tree Tax quietly went away on Nov. 29.)
Business Week tried to figure out why the Christmas tree industry would need a shot in the arm. The answer, according to political columnist Joshua Green: China, or more precisely, "Chinese Fake-Christmas Tree Hegemony."
Cue the Red Scare.
Now comes the American Family Association and its (seemingly annual) call to action prompted by Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee's decision to rename the capitol's official Tannenbaum a "holdiay tree" rather than a "Christmas tree."
The AFA rallied its troops with the shout:
A battle is brewing in Rhode Island and you can weigh in with other Americans to stop this War on Christmas!
This is ridiculous and a slap in the face to the Christian community in Rhode Island. Everyone knows trees displayed at the Capitol in December are to celebrate Christmas, a special holiday in the life of Rhode Island and in the life of our country.
It is unclear how the adjective employed to describe a coniferous tree intended as public celebratory display became a “slap in the face” to the Christian community. It’s especially curious considering that the use of the fir tree around the winter solstice is commonly traced back to Germanic pagan traditions, not Christian ones.
Still, the AFA is demanding an apology for this “politically correct liberal thinking at the expense of the true history and heritage of the Christmas tree.”
Here’s my problem: The American Family Association and their cronies are denigrating Christmas. They should stop.
When the AFA equates wrestling with botanical nomenclature to a “War on Christmas,” it perpetuates the prevailing cultural myth that Christmas is about “stuff.”
The display of a Christmas tree, a nativity (or manger, or crèche) or any other “stuff” on public property is made central to the celebration of Christ’s birth. Suddenly the profound and unique Christian mystery of the Incarnation — the profound truth of Emmanuel, God with us — is reduced to a set of cultural traditions and a demand for public officials to sponsor and endorse their particular brand of celebration.
When that happens, it’s no longer clear what the difference is between a Christmas tree, a golden calf or a two-story blow-up polyurethane Frosty the Snowman.
A lot of Christian families fight the battle to teach their kids that Christmas is about the transforming reality that God put on flesh and dwelt among us. It’s an uphill fight considering the barrage of commercials and other cultural signals that the Christ's Birthday is just another opportunity to consume.
It doesn’t help when the message is reinforced under the guise of Christians defending the faith by "keeping Christ in Christmas," that that same faith is under attack when somebody decides to call a Frasier fir a “holiday tree” instead of a “Christmas tree.”
According to the AFA, Rhode Island State Representative Doreen Costa, called the Chafee a "Grinch." She now plans to hold a competing tree lighting ceremony at the state capitol and she’ll call the pine in question a “Christmas tree.”
Maybe it’s been a while since Costa watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas. But, the moral of that story was that celebration of Christmas comes with or without the tree.
And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!"
It came without packages, boxes or bags!"
And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.
"Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"
I can understand the desire to have a public display that celebrates Christmas. But if you are going to fight for that, make sure it actually celebrates Christmas.
If any Christians want to make sure that the true meaning of Christ’s coming is on display at their capitol building or local town hall, I have a humble suggestion. Instead of lifting up “stuff," arguing over semantics (or whether to have white or colored lights that twinkle or not), host a public reading of what Mary, the Mother of Jesus, had to say about his coming (Luke 1:46-55) in the Magnificat:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
That might actually help put Christ back in Christmas.
Tim King is Communications Director for Sojourners. You can follow Tim on Twitter @TMKing.