When one lives in Arizona, at least the part of the state where I live, many songs about Christmas ring completely fanciful.
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!
Oh the weather outside is frightful
(only 65 F today, pretty terrible really)
Walking in a winter wonderland
(wearing shorts and a T-shirt while the sun beats down on my head)
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the one we had last year
(or maybe it was the year before, or the decade, maybe last century?)
I have no problem with singing nostalgic songs of snow-covered Christmases. But living in the dry Sonoran desert I am reminded each winter that much of our Christmas mythology arises from a very particular cultural perspective. We present an image of Christmas that suits what we think Christmas should be like. And that's okay, except when we start to insist that this should be how everyone experiences Christmas. If you live all your life in Florida, or Arizona, or even more so in Australia or South Africa, Christmas is not likely to bring to mind images of snow-covered pine trees. How about saguaro cacti covered with Christmas lights instead?
Today at the weekly study I attend, one man raised the all-too-common complaint that the phrase “Merry Christmas” has been forced from our society and that this indicates how unchristian we have become. I wholeheartedly affirm the right of this man and anyone else to say “Merry Christmas” as much as he wants, but I also don't think that saying it or not saying it indicates in any way whether we as a nation are in accord with God or not. Rather, it reveals another way in which we create a perception of how Christmas should be and then insist on everyone affirming that perception. But what about those for whom Christmas does not, in fact, have much to do with the birth of Jesus? Do we bring them closer to Jesus by insisting that we greet one another with the words “Merry Christmas”? I resonate with Karl Wheeler's call to surrender Christmas as a “Christian” holiday. He writes: “Why should my faith have more say or power than someone else's? In fact, I think we have less chance of inviting someone to Christ when we rise up in power imposing what we believe to be right.”
In reality, Christmas in America long ago ceased being a Christian holiday. Although Christmas as a Christian celebration does date back quite some distance in Church history, the significant emphasis on this event developed only relatively recently. We make Christmas what we want it to be and we could, should we so choose, celebrate the birth of Jesus on any given day of the year. I happen to like the symbolism of celebrating it in the darkest part of the year—but even that symbolism only works for those of us in the northern hemisphere. For those in the southern hemisphere Christmas comes at the height of summer. Much of the imagery in our traditional Christmas songs must sound particularly out of place when sung on a sunny Australian summer morning.
I am not advocating that we scrap all of our Christmas songs and the imagery we have built up around this holiday. However, we do well to stop and recognize that so much of our thinking about Christmas derives from a particular cultural background – a mythology. This extends not only to images of snow-laden fir trees, but also to the image we have of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in the stall in Bethlehem. We create a nice sanitized image when in fact it probably was quite noisy and messy. (I am not saying that the birth of Jesus did not occur. I am only pointing out that much of how we perceive the actual birth event derives from our own image of how it might have or should have been.)
As I reflect on the humor of singing songs about white Christmases here in Arizona, I recognize that our cultural lenses affect us not only in this season. We all see the world through a particular set of cultural filters and experiences based on our background, our upbringing, our life experiences and the voices of the people we listen to the most. This is natural. But when we cannot recognize that these lenses also limit and distort our perspective, we became prisoners of them. We need to listen to the stories and experiences of others so that we can regularly remember that there is more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy. We do not have the one true understanding of the world, anymore than our image of Christmas as a time of snow-covered scenery and warm fireplaces matches the reality in many parts of the world.
As Christians in America, we must begin to recognize that we live in a multicultural society, one that does not see the world the way we see it. Let's be honest, even those who call themselves by the name of Christ do not all see it the same way. The time has passed when we could insist on defining the narrative that shapes our society solely on our terms. In reality that narrative has been largely defined by a rather narrow portion of society: white men who call themselves Christian. But white Christian men (a group that includes myself) don't have the whole story. We don't have the only perspective on the world and we certainly don't have the true one by which all others must be measured. We need to recognize that figuratively speaking we are living in Arizona but still singing songs about the white Christmas we're expecting this year. Let's wake up, stop dreaming and hear the songs those around us are singing instead. We might just find them to be more meaningful than the old melodies we've so cherished.