On the eve of this Christmas 2008, I will shift 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, i.e., the children: Christmas.
As someone who lived on two continents and evolved in many cultures, I feel I have couple points to make about this 2,000-year-old annual event, especially since celebrating this overwhelming feast is severely under attack on both sides of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. 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 all Christmas babies know all too well: you only get one present, you are forgotten that night, and you also forget about your own birthday.
So, had I been egocentric, I would joined the camp fighting Santa’s day. On top of that, my parents called me “Walid,” Arabic for “the new born.” 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 only surrounded by 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 experienced yet the commercialization of la fete de Noel.
Through books, newspapers and TVs we only knew 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.
A view of the Cedars Mountain from the family house in my native Lebanon around Christmas
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 greater 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 was 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 dimensional: elation with how this country celebrates the event on the one hand, and surprise as to how some relentlessly fight its symbols. Since 1990, 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 gets out of hands and rapidly gets commercialized. Soon enough, mall after mall, ad after ad, one forgets the initial story of Christmas.
New York’s 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 they want: 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: 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. 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 voice uttered and 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. Case after case, over the past half a dozen years, attacks against displaying Christmas trees, mangers and other decorations in public or on public property, the (what we call now) war against Christmas is widening. The anti-Christmas forces claim 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 – even the stories it tells us – have 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 an historic identity – even if it has been built around an initial 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 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 is as secular as all other values and rights. Taking away any of Christmas’ 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 expressing dissent. Christmas is not about politics and exclusion but defending it 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.
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!
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