Holidays become another misguided war

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Criticizing Bill O'Reilly over his fetishistic obsession with the "war on Christmas" is a lot like criticizing water for being wet -- it is what it is.

Every year, Mr. O'Reilly and his colleagues at Fox News harangue their audiences with tales of "secular progressive" incursions upon expressions of traditional American Christmas.

Because Mr. O'Reilly was present at the creation of the war against Christmas meme, he has become its greatest rationalizer and defender -- much like a comedian who is compelled by an audience's blank stares to explain a joke after telling it.

Lately, a sad-clown element has seeped into Mr. O'Reilly's annual ritual of manufactured outrage. Because most municipalities now understand that it isn't kosher to erect creches in public squares, they don't do it if there's an active ACLU office within 100 miles.

We're also more religiously plural than we've ever been, so wishing someone a "Merry Christmas" when you don't know their religious affiliation -- if any -- could be seen as presumptuous.

"Happy Holiday" carries the same weight as a traditional Christmas greeting without the denominational baggage. But in the world inhabited by Mr. O'Reilly and his fellow travelers, anything less than a full-throated "Merry Christmas" proclaimed from every rooftop is a capitulation to the "secular progressives" whom he imagines as hating creches, Jesus and, presumably, Santa Claus.

It also doesn't help that Mr. O'Reilly, more than anyone in the media, has been responsible for conflating the capitalist elves of the Christmas holiday with Christianity itself. That's why the bellicose broadcaster has unveiled a new line of attack in his quixotic defense of the traditional Christmas of his imagination.

This week, a visibly irritated Mr. O'Reilly asked the Rev. Robert Jeffress, a controversial Baptist leader who has blithely compared President Obama to the Antichrist, why "so many Christian leaders are silent when Christianity comes under attack."

"A lot of Christian leaders have the wrong idea about Jesus," Rev. Jeffress said, echoing Mr. O'Reilly's notion that the lack of outrage about the war against Christmas is a sign that Christian leaders are gutless surrender monkeys.

"They see Jesus as this little wimpy guy who walked around plucking daisies and eating birdseed and saying nice things, but never doing anything controversial. The fact is Jesus did confront his culture with truth and he ended up being crucified because of it," Rev. Jeffress said with the self-satisfied smile of a modern-day Savonarola.

The fact that Jesus would be a frequent target of Fox News if he were wandering around Palestine today with the same message of love and tolerance as 2,000 years ago is completely lost on Mr. O'Reilly and Rev. Jeffress.

They're convinced that Jesus, an iconoclast who railed against the rich and the religious establishment of his day, would've subscribed to the same brand of muscular Christianity that they take for granted, including its embrace of American imperial power, bankrupt religious traditions and aversion to turning the other cheek under any circumstance.

But to Mr. O'Reilly's point, Christians aren't outraged by the "war on Christmas" because it doesn't mean anything outside the walls of Fox News' studios. Nothing prevents Christians from embracing the religious dimension of the holiday in their homes and churches. Besides, Jesus discouraged his followers from "parading their religion before men" because it was more a sign of vanity and obnoxiousness than righteousness.

It could be that Mr. O'Reilly and Rev. Jeffress, despite their militant crusade, are somehow unaware that Christians appropriated the holiday from pagans once Christianity became the official religion of Rome. It was originally a fertility celebration called Saturnalia. The Christmas tree is a remnant of that period of dionysian excess.

Ironically, the Christian misfits who helped settle this country in the early Colonial period barely acknowledged and rarely celebrated Christmas. They would've been horrified by the sentimentality and kitsch attached to Christ in the form of creches and Christmas legends in a month Jesus had nothing to do with.

Most biblical scholars believe Jesus was born in the spring, but that his birthday was moved to December by 4th century Christians to accommodate Saturnalia. The Christmas holiday we celebrate today is the result of an unholy alliance between Madison Avenue, 19th century department stores and ancient paganism. "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" is probably the most accurate presentation after all.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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