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It's a holly, jolly time, but is it Christmas?

By Muriel Duncan

The newspaper headline caught my attention: "The politically correct office party: No mention of Christmas at holiday bash." It seems the director of catering at Toronto's Four Seasons Hotel is overseeing posh but generic office parties this season to reflect the diversity of the city's workplaces. The festivities are being referred to as year-end parties, rewards for a year of hard work.

So is this bad news or good news for Christians?

After years of complaining that society is commercializing our sacred celebration of Christ's birth, after years of trying to avoid being sucked into the secular spend-fest, the church finds society doesn't want to stand too close to us anymore.

This should give us the separation we always wanted.

Then why does it feel a bit like being jilted by an unwanted suitor? We wanted to be the first to say goodbye.

It is doubly confusing because secular society is giving us a lingering farewell, not a clear brush-off. After all, the word "Christmas" and Christian symbols aren't disappearing everywhere. But we have heard for some time about schools dropping the annual Christmas concert to be more inclusive of other faiths. And it is harder each year to get Christmas cards that actually say "Merry Christmas" or anything vaguely religious.

At the same time, the buy-now-pay-later Christmas pressure still surrounds us. And in our quiet way, we rage against it. Well, some of us aren't so quiet. In Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Conference last year, some United Church folks got involved in a Mennonite initiative, a Buy Nothing Christmas. A group of young and older activists took their beliefs into Winnipeg malls and big-box stores, singing anti-consumerism, "buy nothing" carols. They were kicked out repeatedly but got noticed city-wide.

Christmas has been captive of the economy for so long that it is difficult for believers separate out who we are and how we should express the love the baby represents. We are part of a society that takes in the baby born in a manger but buys gifts of iPods or PlayStations to mark the occasion. We may do that too but we have the side effect of guilt. Isn't it good to give? Is the problem only in the size of the gift?

And now a society that once was Christian is easing us out of the "holiday." We want commerce to stop abusing our holy days but we don't actually want Christ's birthday ignored.

No wonder we're confused. This is tricky terrain.

It might help to locate our United Church identity as we move through this territory. For instance, we are a social justice church, so we do go out into the secular world. We are a uniting church, so we will work with other faiths wherever we find common ground. We want other faiths to have the right to their holy days and festivals and I suspect they want us to have ours. We are a church that listens for new word from God and will change accordingly.

In this secular climate, we can work on our boundaries. What part of this season is of God and what is of the world? For us, Christmas isn't a year-end party to recognize our hard work; it's a time to honour a holy story of love and hope and peace. Once we stand with the story, it will be easier to take back Christmas.


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