The national psyche is shell-shocked. Even with the highest murder rate among fellow nations and being the largest arms dealer in the world, Americans are stunned by the blowback of September 11, actual attacks on their home ground, on the scale of special effects in movies. Decorative lights are red, white, and blue, in memoriam to the dead, in support of America's war on terrorists.
Osama bin Laden and his band of men, mass murderers for their cause, have thrown the season out of whack. A few dozen men in one branch of one religion killed thousands of people of many religions and nationalities. They want Americans, men and women of many faiths living and working together--and therefore infidels in their scheme of things--out of Saudi Arabia. They want the world to follow their script, their reading of scripture. They will go to any lengths, to the ends of the earth and back, to achieve their purpose. We are reminded that history is geography is destiny.
Compare the two main figures of the season. Father Christmas or St. Nicholas or Sinter Klaas or Santa Claus is an older man from the Arctic Circle, part pagan, part Christian, who rides a horse or a sleigh pulled by reindeer and carries big bags of presents. Jesus is a Jew from Bethlehem, a younger man who has few possessions.
Both of them are legendary philanthropists; they emanate love for people, each in his own way. In the case of Santa, love is shown by bestowing gifts. In the case of Jesus, love is its own reward, a spiritual gift. This creates a certain tension about life on the worldly plane, between the claims of the Kingdom of God and human nature.
This year it's a schism, a crisis. There is a revival of existentialism and of religious expression. Not all Americans celebrate Christmas. There are more Americans who are not Christians than there are African-Americans or Hispanics. You could call them the country's largest minority. Those who are not adherents of Christianity are caught up in the seasonal momentum, which continues from Thanksgiving until trees shed their needles and are discarded. The Christmas experience, centered around Christmas Eve, may last for two months. Many stores do almost half their year's business geared to Christmas and other businesses function exclusively for Christmas.
This year we are more aware than usual of the tens of millions of American Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Baha'is, secular humanists, and those who follow or don't follow other beliefs. We are more aware than usual that America is a pluralist society where more than one-seventh of the population do not observe the birthday of Jesus. There is added reason to give different perspectives some room to breathe amid the crowd of Christmas activities and symbols. We want to see a government for Afghanistan that reflects its multiethnic population, women as much as men. We want them to be as free as we are. Christmas assimilated Saturnalia and winter solstice observances to honor the figure revered as the prince of peace. Christians give gifts, primarily to children, as a proxy for giving birthday gifts to baby Jesus.
"The Christmas season" generally refers to marketing and sales campaigns for people to buy more than they need as much as to a time of prayer. But the two become merged. It is a religious and political act to be a consumer. Christmas carols play in stores and restaurants. The political prayer is an American ritual, in Congress, in the pledge of allegiance to the flag, at public events. This challenges both democracy and spiritual practice, the Constitution and the Christian Bible.
Most American children do not need any extra things. They have enough. They have been indoctrinated to want more things but they don't need them. For the most part, they have more things than anyone else, more than they know what to do with. What children need is love, support, guidance, nurturing, play, kindness, a good education, and, when in doubt, more of the same. They need physical security, food, health, shelter, clothing, air and water and sunlight.
A patriotic Christmas becomes a fusion of church and state. It toys with the First Amendment. It Christianizes America and politicizes Christian religiosity. It confuses the issues. Jesus is usually performed in movies by northern European Christians who will look more like Santa Claus when they get old, not by what we think of as young "Middle Eastern" or "Mediterranean" men. As with the protean Santa Claus, combined from many cultural traditions, Jesus takes on the local trappings of believers. This year, more than ever, the baby Jesus seems to be swaddled in the American flag while Santa seems to be choking on his laugh.
(Harris Sussman is a consultant on social affairs in Boston, USA)