Vail Daily column: Sort Christmas fact from frivolity
Time to dismantle the Christmas tree and box ornaments. Shelving Christmas fantasies that clutter our minds is a good idea, too.
Getting the biblical Christmas story straight is a tough assignment. Through centuries of oral re-telling, fictitious tidbits have been added to the tale of Jesus’ birth. Some people get upset when these add-ons are removed. They gripe that Christ is kicked out of Christmas.
This holiday season, some Starbucks coffee drinkers rejected a disgusting aftertaste from the red holiday cups. In previous years, Starbucks seasonal cups featured carolers, stars, snowmen and ice-skaters. Though never wishing tasters a “Merry Christmas” on Yuletide cups, Starbucks’ holiday designs brewed a pleasing Christmas taste. This year coffee tasters sipped from plain red cups with the green-and-white Starbucks logo.
Joshua Feuerstein, an evangelist in Arizona, blasted Starbucks, posting on his Facebook page: “Starbucks removed Christmas from their cups because they hate Jesus.” No stranger to brewing controversy, Donald Trump sided with Christians irked that Jesus was shunted; his birth underplayed. “Maybe, we should boycott Starbucks,” trumped the Donald. When elected president, Trump promised he would replace bland Yule-neutral “Happy holidays” with a robust “merry Christmas.”
Trump doesn’t keep the Christmas story straight. He’s sucked into nostalgia for red Starbucks cups with Christmassy logos on them.
Charlotte Allen in “A Tempest in a Starbucks Cup” traces cultural whimsy that has edited the Christmas story, making it bulkier than Santa’s rotundity. “During the Middle Ages, poets described lavish Christmas feasts at King Arthur’s court,” notes Allen, “and carolers sang about the boar’s head and seasonal greenery.
“How virtually impossible it has become to separate Christmas fact from fiction, she laments. “You can sue the creche out of the public square, and you can demand that everyone say “Happy holidays”—but a religious residue will linger, warm and glittery enough to entice even the ardently non-religious to buy Christmas trees and line up their children to sit on Santa’s lap” (The Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2015, P. A-11).
Few act like the Christmas shepherds who check out “all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20). Those who feast on fantasy fatten the lean Christmas story-line with glitter and gold.
Inventing extra-biblical tales reaches beyond Christmas cheer. Presidential candidate Ben Carson tells us a whopper about what occurred in ancient Egypt when Joseph served as secretary of agriculture. Joseph stored a huge supply of grain and used it to save Egypt and the rest of the world during a seven-year-famine.
Where did Joseph dump this grain before dispersing it? In a 1998 commencement speech, Carson said Joseph used the pyramids as his grain silos. “Now, my personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain,” he surmised. “Now all the archeologists think they were made for the pharaoh’s graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big — when you stop and think about it, and I don’t think it’d just disappear over the course of time — to store that much grain.” This hard-to-swallow silliness doesn’t faze some of Carson’s supporters who heard him recently reaffirm it on CBS News.
Egyptians built pyramids as royal tombs, not granaries. Carson concocts fiction masquerading as faith.
When we don’t get the Christmas story straight, it takes on fairy-tale qualities. Several years ago, Michael Martin in a Christian Century magazine article spun a ludicrous tale of what we like to believe about Christmas. He imagined this quaint scenario: “Once upon a time a decree went out from Caesar in August that everyone should be taxed to bring down the deficit. Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem. Mary rode on a donkey named Rudolph who was so embarrassed to be seen carrying an unwed mother that the beast blushed, causing his nose to glow red.
“Upon arriving in Bethlehem, they could not find a place to stay. As they knocked at the door of the last inn in town, the inn-keeper pushed back the shutter and threw up the sash. His figure appeared so nimble and quick, they knew in a moment his name must be Nick.
“Meanwhile, in a field nearby, seven dwarfs who were shepherds were startled to hear a group of angels singing Handel’s Messiah. At the end of the concert, they were told to stand up (which, by the way, has become a tradition even to this day) and go to Bethlehem. So off they marched to the beat of their friend, the little drummer boy.”
With unadorned cups, Starbucks helps bring the actual Christmas story into focus, so take a swig of Starbucks’ strongest brew. Once our caffeinated systems are jolted and heads cleared, let’s sort what’s real in the Christmas story from maudlin, surgery and dreamy traditions.
Minus clutter and trappings of the season, we meet Jesus in the biblical birth stories recorded in Matthew and Luke, without tinsel and glitter. Read undistorted “glad tidings” about how a generous God invests in humanity, motivating us to show magnanimity toward friends, refugees and travelers on difficult treks. Get this story straight, as you drink a Starbucks’ brew in a plain cup.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit Creative Growth Ministries.