Are they going to steal Christmas from us? Not a chance, and for that we have to thank not only the believers, but also the disbelievers. That’s right: those who don’t believe for a minute that a virgin dropped into a manger in the middle of the desert and popped out the son of God — some of those very same heathen folk are the ones who will keep Christmas the white, but blue yet merry little holiday that celebrates little towns and silent nights and midnight clears and stars of beauty bright.

It’s been quite a stir this holiday season. Bad news bears like Bill O’Reilly discovered that icons of Americana such as Wal-Mart, Sears, and Target now feel compelled to wish customers “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” That’s the beginning of the end, the Foxcasters decided.

Here in central New Jersey we had a more reasonable — but nevertheless anguished — discussion played out in our sister publication, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News.

The Lutheran pastor in town, Paul Lutz, lamented “the growing reality that the shopping and the decorations and the overconsumption is actually the major part of the celebration of Christmas” and urged Christians to celebrate “the miracle of God’s incarnation” rather than “maxing out your credit cards at the shopping mall.”

Then came the inevitable pairing of the menorah and the Christmas tree, technically the “holiday” tree, in the town park. Rabbi Shalom Leverton and members of his Chabad installed the menorah, but only after the township attorney issued a detailed study approving the menorah, so long as the menorah was clearly labeled as belonging to the Chabad, not the Township.

To that the rabbis of the more established synagogues had this response: “As religious leaders, we have never asked for a Chanukah menorah to be placed on public property for display because we believe that the menorah is a deeply religious symbol, belonging in synagogues, Jewish homes, and Jewish communal institutions. The menorah is not the equivalent of a Christmas tree; Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas.

So some people are trying to steal Christmas. Others don’t want anything to do with it. What in Christ’s name is going on here?

Maybe it’s time to consider those non-believers — especially those non-believers who celebrate Christmas like there’s no tomorrow. Those heathen, if you think about it, have had a grip on Christmas since the fourth century A.D. or so, when someone in the new Christian church had the bright idea of making December 25 the big day for Jesus, probably to co-opt the pagan solstice rituals that were already raging across the northern hemisphere.

Some federal bureaucrats in the United States unwittingly gave comfort to these heathen when they proclaimed Christmas a federal holiday in 1870. Sooner or later, with the constitutional provision of church and state, that holiday would have to become like all the rest — bank and postal and secular, as well. That’s why that Christmas tree in West Windsor turns out to be a holiday tree, while the menorah is a religious symbol, protected under freedom of religion, so long as other religions are allowed to participate.

Gene Autry has a holiday song that wishes everyone a “merry Texas Christmas” (and lots of oil gushers to go with it). Here’s to a merry heathen Christmas. It may not be all about Christ in the manger, but it’s about a lot of other stuff that’s not so bad: It’s about peace on earth, good will toward men and women. It’s about being a single parent still up at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning, cursing at the demons that keep him from finishing the final details that Santa needs in order to make his delivery to the two small kids sound asleep upstairs.

It’s about giving unto others and being home for the holidays. It’s about remembering those who can’t get home anymore (they’ll have a blue Christmas without us), and wondering how many more Christmases of white the current cast will enjoy. It’s about joy to the world, whether or not the lord has come.

At the risk of ending up like John Lennon, you might say that the heathen believers have made Christmas bigger than Christ. The other day the front page of the New York Times featured a photograph of an Asian couple photographing their infant with the Manhattan skyline in the background. The baby was dressed in a Santa costume. Whether this family is Christian or not, I’ll bet there will be presents under the tree come December 25.

A few years ago a Buddhist dropped by my house during the holiday season. Someone brought out a little toy barn that had been part of this man’s childhood — the kind of toy that Santa might have left under the tree back in the 1950s. The man broke into tears. Christmas bigger than Christ? It might even be bigger than Buddha, brother.

This is a Christmas that Wal-Mart can’t steal, that Fox News can’t steal, that the Christians themselves can’t steal. Not even the grinch can steal this Christmas. Have a great holiday or holy day, whichever is the case, and a dazzling new year.

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