Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Christmas wars are a failure of hospitality

It's almost Christmas, and that means it's time to start griping about people saying "Happy Holidays". Right?

It seems to me that the Christmas wars are primarily a failure of hospitality on the part of those Christians engaged in them. Hospitality is a prominent theme of the Bible. "You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:21, NRSV). "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it" (Hebrews 13:2, NRSV). We are commanded to be hospitable, especially to those who are not like us.

In a country with a variety of religions, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds the practice of hospitality takes on a new importance. Our neglect of it has led to our annual conflict - conflict at the time of year when we remember the song of the angels proclaiming peace on earth. Hospitality, among other things, mean making room for those who are "other", welcoming them, even learning from them. A hospitable person will not be offended by others saying "Happy Holidays" in recognition that, for example, not all of their customers are Christians. A hospitable person will not demand that their ways dominate to the exclusion of others.

This becomes especially ironic when we consider that the Christmas story turns on the issue of hospitality. Mary and Joseph could find no room at the "inn". This could be, in the traditional telling, because the innkeeper was a nasty man who only grudgingly allowed the pregnant woman to stay in the barn. There is an alternate version, though, that portrays the "innkeeper" as a relative of Joseph who did what he could to give them a place to stay, possibly in the family quarters since there was no room in the guest room/"inn". (For more information see here and here. It looks like Kenneth Bailey, a respected scholar, is behind this retelling.)

However you take it, hospitality is an important Christmas theme. It is all the more urgent, then, to be hospitable at Christmas. This means more than opening your home to your family ("do not even the gentiles do the same?"). It means making room for those who are not like us. If hospitality in a multicultural society demands that we modify our holiday greetings then it seems like a small price to pay.


  1. If it were up to me I would remove Christmas and Easter from the government calendar and replace them with holidays that everyone can participate in without all this nonsense. People should be allowed to take important holy days off by arrangement with their employers but they shouldn't be imposed on everyone. I think it means more when one observes holy days voluntarily rather than by default. Retailers would never go for it, though, with so much money involved.

  2. Well said, my friend. I also get not a little peeved by the ones who gripe about X-Mas vs. Christmas. Really, does it only take putting an X on the name of Christ to remove Him from Christmas? I think not, and I find it a bit silly to get worked up over something so inconsequential.

  3. Sylvia: Are you *trying* to make the Christmas wars worse? ;)

    jwfrog: I agree. Besides, the X is an ancient symbol for the name of Christ. I don't know the historical origins of "Xmas" but I imagine it's more likely that the X was used as an abbreviation.

  4. :D I wonder at evangelicals fighting to preserve Santa Claus (a Catholic saint) and nativity scenes (invented by St. Francis). Not to mention the pagan tree, holly, and yule log...

  5. I should have said Santa Claus is a Catholic and Orthodox saint, with more emphasis on the latter.


About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.