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A Merry Public Christmas

December 13, 2010

Greg GarrettBy Greg Garrett

I grew up in cities across the South, and in a small town in Oklahoma -- and all, at that time, were the kinds of places where it would not have occurred to anyone in my vicinity to ask questions about whether displays commemorating religious holidays belong on public land or Christmas pageants belong in public schools. In my small town, we marked the passage of time with public events, and Christmas displays in front of the police and fire station (we had no courthouse) were treated no differently than the civic fireworks on the 4th of July. They were a sign of community and a sign of civic spirit, and I want to remind folks about this -- or to inform them, if it has never occurred to them, that people might have valid reasons to permit sacred life to intrude into the secular and public spheres.

I won't claim that all the places I lived were monolithic -- Atlanta and Charlotte were large, culturally and racially diverse, and I know there were people who weren't Christian, although I would never have been allowed anyplace where I could meet them -- but my small town in Oklahoma was (at that time) monolithic: one black family, one Hispanic family, no out gays or lesbians, and if you weren't Christian, you certainly didn't advertise it.

Communities like this still exist, and I realize you can either romanticize or villainize them, depending on your tendencies. But both impulses are too simple. Me? I want to understand the impulses, and to understand what's at the heart of a desire either to permit (or insert) Christianity in the public square or to ban it from view and make it strictly a private matter.

Because there is no biblical prescription to celebrate Christmas -- and because for much of the Common Era, Christmas was either a pagan feast or a sensual free-for-all -- the tradition doesn't offer much theological wisdom about Christmas. Likewise, the Founding Fathers would not have known Christmas as a sacred occasion as we do today. Still, as with everything else in my life these days, I want to explore why I do what I do and believe what I believe, even if our sacred texts don't provide direct guidance.

I want to know, for example, why my liberal political brain thinks we must protect the rights of all non-Christians by banning public expressions of Christmas, particularly in territories where government intersects them.

I want to know why my conservative remembering brain thinks people should be allowed to enjoy such public expressions.

Since I carry in myself multitudes, and those multitudes often disagree like people outside my body, mostly in this essay I want to explore theologically what we gain -- and lose -- when we do either.

Read the rest of this article at Patheos here.


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