Time to think about what we’re celebrating

Among the many e-mails I get as a newspaper editor, from people seeking my attention for one cause or another, are those from various individuals and organizations, none of them local, bemoaning the latest signs of decline of Western Civilization as we know it.

At this time of the year, a lot of the noise is about Christmas. There are legal tussles and general disputes over the political correctness of locating a Nativity scene on a public lawn, whether it’s permissible for kids to sing carols in the public school, whether a tree should be located in a school hallway (which occurred a few weeks ago in Ashland), or whether you should say “Merry Christmas.”

Most people who are concerned about what is happening to the Christmas spirit in our nation see these events as symptomatic of a larger change €“ the decline of religion and, particularly, the traditional Judeo-Christian values that have been strongly identified with much of American life for the more than four centuries since European settlers arrived on our eastern shores.

According to surveys conducted last spring, cited in Newsweek and other major news organs, the percentage of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has more than doubled in the last 20 years. At the same time, the percentage of the population who claim adherence to Christianity, Judaism and Islam all dropped €“ 10 percent for Christians.

With this rising disinterest in the values and beliefs that got us to where we are today, it should be no surprise that Christmas and other religious traditions are taking a beating.

Frankly, Christmas’ claim to legitimacy as a Christian holiday is a little problematic €“ the main hurdle being that the holiday isn’t even mentioned in the Bible. (Of course, neither is Easter.) I know some Christians who do not celebrate Christmas because of that and the pagan origins of some of the traditions associated with it today (such as the Christmas tree, the holly and the ivy, mistletoe, etc.).

Most people I know just enjoy selecting and decorating a nice-smelling evergreen and maintaining family traditions that are associated with the whole process. I don’t think most know or care about what happened a thousand years ago.

But all that aside, the events that spawned this holiday we call Christmas are increasingly being ignored by many, if the polls are accurate. That’s too bad, especially at a time when, with an economy that’s in bad shape, we would do well to refocus on what’s important in this life €“ besides collecting material possessions, which is what we tend to do when dollars are flowing.

In a sense, Christmas can be what you choose. It can be all about heart-warming stories about Santa and Rudolph, or people figuring out what’s important in life (“It’s a Wonderful Life”). It can be a time for charitable activities and gift-giving, such as the Sharing Tree or Shop with a Cop, both reported in today’s paper. It can be a time for families to get together, hopefully in peace and good will. It can be about beautiful decorations and great food. It can be a time to particularly remember the birth of Jesus Christ, who, according to the biblical accounts, came to repair the broken bond between sinners and God (“God and sinners reconciled,” as one well-known carol puts it), which, when you think about it, really is quite a gift.

It can be some or all of those things. Or it can be nothing.

If you read history, most of the traditions of Christmas were, in one way or another, associated with the story of the birth of Christ €“ the stars, the angels, the gift-giving, peace on earth and good will toward men.

If we lose the former, I wonder what happens to the latter?

I’m not sure I want to know.

From The New Era, we wish you a merry Christmas and happiness in the new year.