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An entry in the Group Writing Project sponsored by On the Horizon and The Next Step.

And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,”Glory to God in the highest,And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

Luke 2:9-14

Santa was kneeling before the manger. He was flanked by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Ebeneezer Scrooge and a few other secular characters. They had come up to the stage one by one, following Ebeneezer’s lead, and taken their place on bended knee. Finally, Santa had walked down the aisle of the sanctuary, up the steps to the stage, and taken his place center stage in the spotlight. Then they all rose, turned to face the audience and led the singing of “Silent Night.” It was the grand finale.

And for my father, it was the end.

“I’ll be in the car,” he said.

Before my mother or I could respond, he was out of his seat, striding purposefully toward the rear doors of the sanctuary. As I watched him, I knew there was no point trying to dissuade him and dreaded having to join him in the parking lot.

After all, attending the local Assembly of God congregation’s annual “Singing Christmas Tree” had been my idea.

It was 1990 and #1Son was nearly three years old. He was learning all the traditional Christmas carols and loved to sing them. I thought he would enjoy the music and invited my parents to join us. Singing Christmas trees were the rage and we were curious to see just what all the fuss was about. Unlike our Lutheran congregation, that church’s sanctuary boasted a full stage, complete with professional stage lighting upon which their orchestra led worship every Sunday morning. The program was based upon “A Christmas Carol,” so I thought it sounded like a fun and interesting way to spend a December Sunday afternoon.

The trouble really started with the grand opening musical number when, from the side doors, those secular characters began singing and dancing their way into the sanctuary. #1Son’s eyes grew big and he exclaimed, “Mama, there’s Rudolph!” He was oblivious to the theological implications of inviting such fanciful secular characters into the worship space, especially from a Lutheran perspective.

But my parents were not. Seated between them, I found myself watching them more closely than the musical numbers. I can still remember the looks on their faces. My mother was totally perplexed, struggling to process the images. She was reaching back into her memories of a Lutheran upbringing on the prairie where she attended services conducted in Norwegian and was still somewhat traumatized by having to stand before the entire congregation and recite portions of Luther’s Small Catechism as part of the Confirmation ritual that was common in those days.

My father, who had no religious upbringing at all but was baptized and confirmed into the Lutheran faith when he married my mother, squirmed uncomfortably in his seat. He cleared his throat a couple of times and his eyes narrowed. Then came the “Oh, Kenny is definitely not enjoying this” gesture that my sister and I had learned as children to understand and fear: He put his right elbow on the arm of the chair and, resting his hand on his chin, covered his mouth with his right hand, deep in thoughtful consideration. That pose was never a good sign because it usually meant that he was going to tell us exactly what he thought as soon as he finished deciding upon the best way to communicate his ideas. Kenny was a stoic man of few words. To those who knew him well, however, his body language and daily habits spoke volumes.

#1Son dozed off shortly after the first couple of musical numbers, bored with Ebeneezer’s journey of self-discovery. He spent the rest of the afternoon snuggled into my chest sleeping soundly, leaving me to appreciate that my decision to bring my parents to that holiday event constituted a serious miscalculation.

And by the time the grand finale was being played out, Kenny had had enough.

At the time, I was employed by my Lutheran congregation as its organist/pianist and choir accompanist. I can still hear Pastor John’s distinctive laughter as I told him about our experience. Knowing my father, he actually snorted as he chided me about ordering tickets early for the following year’s “Singing Christmas Tree.” He assured me that I would never find him in attendance — or Santa in our sanctuary so long as he was our pastor.

A few years later, I arrived at the home of our then-Associate Pastor, Hans. Pastor John had moved on and Pastor Hans was hosting our annual staff Christmas party. I stopped in the middle of the living room floor and stared at the figurine on the coffee table. There was Santa kneeling beside the manger in which the baby Jesus lay. I told him the above story which had less individualized meaning because my father died before Pastor Hans arrived in Lodi, so he never had the opportunity to know him. He did, however, have an intricate understanding of the mindset of folks like my parents.

Pastor Hans explained that he found the imagery to be a powerful reminder of the appropriate Christmas hierarchy: The secular is fine, but should always underscore and never outshine or dominate the actual message of the Christmas season. The figurine was fine on his coffee table, but not in the church, however.

When I happened upon this image this morning, I was reminded of those prior experiences:

Photo credit: Strange Santa Scene Makes Bremerton Man’s Comment on Christmas

The homeowner who erected that odd display in front of his home said that he was motivated by the commercialization of the holiday, as well as “political correctness.” The Kitsap Sun reported that Art Conrad of Bremerton, Washington

created it by stuffing a Santa suit and borrowing the head off a motion-activated Santa that dances and sings Christmas carols.The headless dancing Santa now carries a knife and sings and dances on Conrad’s front porch.Conrad photographed the crucified Santa and created his own Christmas cards, one with the message, “Santa died for your MasterCard.””Santa has been perverted from who he started out to be,” Conrad said. “Now he’s the person being used by corporations to get us to buy more stuff.”Conrad said the second message comes from his belief that people are so afraid of being politically incorrect that they won’t do anything because of what other people might think or what the American Civil Liberties Union might do.Conrad said he’s had several people a day stop and take photos. If anyone’s offended, no one has let on, he said. He declined to discuss his own thoughts on God, but said he showed a picture of the crucified Santa to a Christian coworker. She told him she wasn’t offended because she knows Christ is no longer on the cross.

I relate to the message Mr. Conrad is attempting to convey and definitely appreciate the perspective of his Christian coworker. She is, of course, absolutely correct: Christ was put on the cross but does not reside there because he was raised from the dead.

But do the images Mr. Conrad displays offend Christians, much as the intertwining of secular and religious imagery offended my parents?

Vlad Zoblotsky commented:

While Christians may be upset at the signal the image may be sending, it projects the truth about our society. It is acceptable to associate this pagan dwarf with Christmas, while mentioning Christ during this season makes you intolerant to other religious groups. Well here is an idea, why don’t we just rename this day into “Santmas”??? It is ironic that no one cares that the figure of this non-existent pagan dwarf is more accepted than Christ, the true reason behind Christmas.I guess our society is much happier to live in the midst of lies. We accept lies about this pagan dwarf over the truth of Christ.

The term “political correctness” infuriates me. How did the remarkably simple concept of “tolerance” become so misunderstood and maligned?

The meaning of tolerance that I find most helpful is:

A fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.

Note that displaying tolerance neither contemplates nor requires abandonment of one’s own beliefs, ideas, traditions or rituals. In order to be a tolerant person, one need not refrain from engaging in activities that are individually meaningful. This is where I believe that the whole notion of “political correctness” has taken a wrong turn in this culture.

I once unintentionally angered an atheist who was recounting some very serious challenges she and her family were facing. She was distraught and talking about their problems was evidently therapeutic for her.

So as our conversation was concluding, I remarked, “I will certainly keep you and your family in my prayers in the coming days.” Her emotional distress quickly turned to rage. “I am an atheist! How dare you say that you will pray for me! I find that extremely offensive.”

First of all, I did not know she was an atheist. Obviously, had I realized that, I would never have injected the topic of prayer into our conversation, even though she was aware of my beliefs.

More importantly, however, in my opinion, it was her outrage that was inappropriate, offensive and extremely disrespectful, even though I was the one apologizing. I assured her that I was unaware of her beliefs and did not mean to offend. But had she been less defensive and more gracious, she would have simply said, “Well, thank you” and gone on her way.

Why? Because I have a right to exercise my religious beliefs. I do not have a right to obnoxiously inflict them upon others, so it would have been presumptuous and out of line for me to suggest that we stop at that moment and pray together.

But had she been capable of respecting my beliefs, different as they are from her own, she would have realized that intercessory prayer is a core component of my religious belief system. And she would have appreciated that when a Christian says that he/she will pray for you, it is merely his/her way of saying that you will remain in his/her thoughts and he/she will continue to send good wishes your way. Nothing more. Nothing less. After all, to an atheist, prayer is a pointless exercise. So if I want to waste my time praying to a deity that an atheist does not believe exists, how can that be offensive? Wouldn’t it have been more important and valuable to our relationship for her to acknowledge that in my own way, I communicated my concern and care for her and her family?

Demonstrating tolerance simply means co-existing peacefully with folks whose beliefs and lifestyles are different than your own. It is nothing more complicated than the “Golden Rule,” i.e., treating people in exactly the same manner as you wish to be treated. If you want others to respect your beliefs, you must respect theirs. You can acknowledge those differences and treat people fairly without yielding your own identity.

So why do so many people find it so difficult to be truly tolerant?

More importantly, why do they feel that when other people exercise the same freedoms that have been granted to them, their own rights are somehow threatened or diminished? They are not.

Last Christmas there was a brouhaha about the Seattle airport erecting a Christmas tree. A local rabbi asked that a Menorah be included in the public holiday display. The reactionary airport management responded by removing the tree, causing the rabbi to be subjected to derision and ridicule.

Why was it so difficult for the airport officials to grasp the concept of inclusivity which, of course, is an important aspect of tolerance? When they finally understood the rabbi’s message, the tree went back up — as did the Menorah he asked to have displayed as a show of respect to those celebrating Hanukkah. That simple solution should have been implemented in the first place.

Better yet, airport officials should have included a variety of recognizable holiday symbols at the outset, demonstrating tolerance and inclusivity, and eliminating the need for the rabbi to ask that his beliefs be represented.

To display a “fair, objective, and permissive attitude” toward others is, ultimately, to be Christ-like. It was a Lutheran sermon many years ago that really drove that point home for me and caused me to view discussions about “political correctness” from this vantage point.

Jesus practiced tolerance, acceptance and inclusivity by stepping outside societal norms, angering society’s leaders in the process.

For instance, I am amused by Christian women who say “Oh, no, I’m not a feminist. I could never be a feminist.” They do not understand that Jesus invented feminism, validating not only women, but also children, by rejecting the accepted social mores of that time. Women and children were property. Owned by men. Chattel. They had little value or worth by sociological standards.

So what did Jesus tell his male followers to do? Love their wives the way he loved his church. That was a wildly radical concept! Outrageous! Unheard-of! And to prove the point, he submitted to his Father’s will and died for that church.

As if that weren’t enough, he told us all to love each other in precisely the way that we want to be loved. Nobody had ever heard such crazy ideas! But then he went right ahead and lived out his principles, hanging out not just with women and children, but all of society’s rejects: Taxpayers, lepers, adulteresses, et. al.

So if he set that kind of radical example for us to follow, why is it so difficult for us to simply acknowledge and understand that other people see the world differently than we do and then go about our own business?

Frankly, I would never erect a cross like Mr. Conrad’s. Do I find it offensive? Yes, I do.

But this is America and if he wants to put an obnoxious display like that one on the front lawn of his residence, that is his right. Do I believe that his intended parody is demeaning to my Christan beliefs? Yes. But would I go to the City Council and demand that he remove it? No. I would simply refrain from driving by his house. I would quietly tolerate his right to free speech and religious expression.

So what would be the difference between Santa on the cross and, for instance, a Swastika? The distinction is clear: A Swastika is a universally recognized and historically significant symbol of hatred toward an entire class of persons that brings tremendous pain to large numbers of people when they are exposed to that image. It connotes animosity toward a group of people because of an inherent characteristic over which they have no control. That is far different than a fool’s display of a harmless secular character superimposed upon a religious symbol. He is not saying that he hates Christians or any other group. (Quite the opposite, in fact.) And many would argue that Christianity, especially as practiced by our fundamentalist brothers and sisters, is an adopted or chosen system of beliefs. You may be born into a Christian family, as I was, but you can change your religious identity and affiliation. You cannot change, for example, the color of your skin, the country from which your ancestors hailed, the first language you were taught to speak, etc.

I believe in keeping Christ in Christmas means exhibiting tolerance, forbearance and consideration to those who do not see Christmas through the same lens that I do. That does not require me to refrain from exercising my religious freedoms and believes, but allows me to do so while respecting those who walk other paths.

So I wish all of you who are celebrating Christmas a very merry and joyous observance! To those who do not celebrate the holiday, I wish you good cheer and happiness!


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8 Comments

  1. Janie,

    I appreciate the link and attention. I am glad to have discovered your blog. Keep up the good work!

    Vlad’s last blog post..Blessed Christmas To All

  2. Janie,
    A few years back I attempted to get a United Methodist minister of music (church organist) to use secular Christmas music in church by having the Sunday School classes discuss the Christian analogues. Since the kids were hearing the stuff all the time, they might as well learn to see its relevance to the Gospel, I thought. The woman about flipped and dusted off every impossible to sing Charles Wesley hymn she could find. Christ calls us to love the world, not to create an exclusive club within it. He turns the idea of society–the setting up of rules to keep certain people out–on its head. To miss that is to miss the story.

    Thanks for this strong and insightful post. God bless, and Merry Christmas!

    SandyCarlson’s last blog post..Ever Wonder about the Star of Wonder?

  3. Janie,

    I have Stumbled this article, you might want to follow up with thumb up for the best results, if you know what I mean.

    Vlad’s last blog post..Blessed Christmas To All

  4. This is a great, thought-provoking article. I get so frustrated with “political correctness” which is so totally intolerant. About the santa on the cross…not my cup of tea, but given his explanation I don’t find it to be offensive, just foolish and misplaced.

    Hope you are having a very merry Christmas!

    Miriam Pauline’s last blog post..Christ in Christmas

  5. First off, I am never offended when someone prays for me. This is the most meaningful way some folks can offer me comfort, and I am grateful.

    Second, I think that rabbi was wrong to ask for a menorah. Christmas is a major holiday, Hanukkah is a minor one. When we accept people putting up menorahs in the name of “inclusivity,” we are letting people assuage their guilt. If you really want to include Jews, put up decorations for Rosh Hashonah or Passover, and skip Hanukkah. Putting up Hanukkah decorations is just the way that people feel better about putting up decorations for Christmas — because it comes at the same time of year.

    Emily R’s last blog post..Maybe it’s a dybbuk?

  6. It makes me uncomfortable to look at the photo but it is good food for thought. I wouldn’t put it in my own yard because of neighborhood children. But then it also doesn’t draw me into the love involved in the story of Christmas either.

  7. Play arcade games

    cant help to find the picture with the santa on the cross rather tasteless and slightly offensive, simply don’t understand how ppl can do it then blame on art or simular b.s.

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