Christmas is Not Negotiable

On the eve of this Christmas 2008, I shifted from my ongoing field of research and commentary in terrorism, international and ethnic conflict, and global strategies to address a subject dear to the heart of many among us, and dream-maker to most of us (e.g., the children): Christmas. I will reiterate this assertion: Christmas as a celebration is not negotiable.

As someone who has lived on two continents and evolved in many cultures, I feel I have a couple of points to make about this 2,000-year-old annual event, especially since celebrating this overwhelming feast is under attack by Noelophobia (I term I have coined). I must disclose, however, that my relationship with Christmas is also personal: I was born on its eve and thus had to deal with the reality that every Christmas baby knows all too well: You get only one present, you are forgotten that night, and you forget about your own birthday. So had I been egocentric, I would have joined the camp fighting Santa's day. On top of that, my parents named me "Walid," Arabic for "the newborn." There was little resistance I could offer. Christmas marginalized my own anniversary yet became somewhat a higher birthday with which I was associated.

Until I was 12, I thought that no one would mess with Christmas. Why would anyone do such a thing? Jesus was just a tiny baby who couldn't threaten anyone then. He had no home, he was a refugee, and at birth, he was surrounded by only his poor dad and mom, a donkey, and an ox. Later came few shepherds and their sheep. I couldn't imagine why Christmas would be in trouble: By itself it's an enchanted story, generating immense feelings of happiness in the hearts of celebrants around the world. Besides, this holiday has reached planetary dimensions, exceeding at times its original simplicity. But back in the Eastern Mediterranean, I hadn't yet experienced the commercialization of la fête de Noel. Through books, newspapers, and TVs, we knew only that almost all cultures enjoyed Christmas, even though not all societies shared its theological meaning. In the old days of multiethnic Beirut, not only Christians, but also many Muslims and Druze, erected Christmas trees, and kids across the sectarian divide were visited by Santa. So far, everything was good.

But then I learned that "Christmas" was persecuted in many countries of that region, including in the land of its genesis. Indeed, the oldest Christian communities of the world, stretching from Egypt to Iran, were among the most suppressed. Christmas in Syria and Iraq was tightly regulated by the ruling regimes: Santa had to be a Baathist. In Iran, the Khomeinists banned decorations in the streets: Christians had to whisper carols inside their homes. In Saudi Arabia, Christmas was forbidden by law, and in Sudan, African celebrations of the event were decimated by the militias of Khartoum. Years later, a morphing jihadi regime brutally eliminated the "Kuffar" Christmassy traditions as the Taliban blew up Buddha's statues. The Holy Land got its share as Gaza's jihadists chased out the enclave's Christians. The war against this holiday in the Greater Middle East was the other face of the jihad against the infidels.

But I also learned about the resilience of Christmas against all regimes and in spite of terror during my life in the Middle East. From Tehran to Baghdad, from Khartoum to Damascus, trees were set up and decorations installed inside homes. Santa would visit apartments discreetly, dodging the Iranian Pasdaran patrols and the Baathist secret police. Even in Saudi Arabia and under the Taliban, where the eid al milaad (Christmas) is illegal, underground Papa Noels would slip presents under kids' beds. In these lands of extreme intolerance to infidel holidays, a Christmas resistance movement would enlist not only Christians, but also Muslims, agnostics, and sometimes atheists. Strange feast, I always thought. It doesn't matter which theology it serves, for at the end of the day in these southern regions, it has become a celebration of hope for humanity in the center of which lies a baby.

But when I relocated to these shores of the Atlantic, I received a cultural shock. My encounter with Christmas in America was two-sided: elation at how this country celebrates the event on the one hand and surprise as to how some relentlessly fight its symbols on the other. Since the 1990s, when I emigrated to the U.S., I enjoyed tremendously the fullness of the joy during the weeks and days leading to Christmas Eve. As everywhere else in the world, there is indeed something magic to this time of the year, something that academia cannot explain thoroughly. But in this country, the massiveness of expression only reflects the size of everything else American: large and generous. Christmas is so big in this nation that it rapidly gets out of hand and commercialized. Soon enough, mall by mall, ad by ad, one forgets the initial story of Christmas.

Ironically, Christmas becomes so opulent in our American culture that we forget that the baby in the manger was very poor -- poorer than the poorest in Africa. But at least one is free to celebrate the Christmas he wants: bourgeois, at the mall, on TV, at home, on the streets, at church, with the dispossessed, or anywhere else the way one wishes to spend these magical moments.  One can revel in spirituality, in deep theology, or listening to rock 'n' roll. Christmas is free for all -- not only for faithful Christians, but less practicing ones, non-practicing ones, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and even believers in no religion. Unlike in Wahhabi and Khomeinist lands, No one will argue with you if you celebrate Christmas in America -- or so I thought.

What I discovered was that outside the lands of intolerance in the East, anti-Christmas forces exist -- even here in America. That was my second encounter with the American Christmas: I met Noelophobia. For about five years, I was just amused that freedoms in this great country ensure that even those who criticize the general happiness triggered by Christmas have their voices heard. In America, you can hate Christmas or call for its banning -- while under jihadi regimes, you can't even mention that it exists. But as years passed, I noted the rise of "Christmasophobia"...not in the sense of being unnerved by it -- which is legitimate -- but in the sense of persecuting it. With case after case over the past half-dozen years attacking Christmas trees, mangers, and other decorations on public or public property, the (what we call now) war against Christmas is widening. The anti-Christmas forces claim that since it is a "religious event," and since the United States is a secular country, traces of Christmas celebrations must be eradicated from the public sphere. I take contention with this.

First, let those in charge of the religious and theological dimensions of Christmas defend their rights where they feel they can. To me, Christmas is not just a religious holiday, but a tradition -- read, a civil right. Indeed, the Christmas celebration, and even the stories it tells us, has become part of a cultural context defining our very identity. And there is no concession we want to make on the essence of our sociological identity. If the academic elite in this country cannot grasp the meaning of a historic identity -- even if it has been built around an religious narrative -- they can take all the time they need to understand it. Let the die-hard, primitive, anticlerical elite fight their senseless battles with the religious zealots on all things philosophical and theological. That is their business, not ours -- the overwhelming majority of people who enjoy and celebrate these moments of peace. And no, we're not interested in changing its name or its date. This battle against Christmas is now aimed -- and will be fought -- against the people in the land of reality, not in the realm of textbooks.

Bad news for the anti-Christmas hordes: Christmas has become an integral part of our culture and will be defended as such. Yes, it is part of the Republic of the People, by the People, and it is as secular as all other values and rights. Taking away any of Christmas's components, including Santa, the tree, the baby, the star, the three kings, and even the donkey and ox is the equivalent of ending the rights of people to vote, own, have a fair trial, or express dissent. Christmas is not about politics and exclusion, but its defense will be fierce. It is simple: crushing Christmas is crushing a cultural identity, and that will generate a national resistance.

The anti-Christmas forces do not realize that the society they sprung is time-centered on this benchmark. Without Christmas, how will they begin a new year, and where will they start it? They haven't realized that the end and beginning of our calendar year is calculated initially based on this celebration? And how will they count the years? How can they explain 2009 and the 21st century? Will they create a new calendar, as did the French Revolution? And how can they get a consensus on the new time? Unless they wish to replace this calendar with another, even more religiously explicit one, such as the Sharia Hijra calendar, they have no answer.

"Winter holidays"? It doesn't work because the southern hemisphere begins its summer over Christmas. You can't force the Australians, the Zulus, and the Brazilians to celebrate winter holidays during their hot season. Feats of when some planets line up with other planets? Nah. Planets line up with other cosmic objects every fraction of a second. We can't be celebrating all year long. There is nothing that replaces Christmas...nada. It is embedded in our genome and was imposed on us by who we are and what we are. The story of a baby who owns nothing between his poor parents is our beginning as humanity. The animals in the manger symbolizes peace as it should be, the multiracial Kings represents pluralism, the star reminds us of the universe waiting for us, and the angel means hope that something better is out there. So what can the Noelophobes give us as better symbols? Lawyers rushing to sue happiness in courts?  

Hence, until they do create another planet and get us better answers, we're staying with Christmas, we will defend it as a cultural right, and we're not making a concession on our identity, even if we're open to new ideas all the time.

Merry Christmas to all!

Dr. Walid Phares is a writer and a professor of global studies.
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