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An American Christmas

An American Christmas

A couple of days before Christmas, I was talking to Mohammed, a Muslim who works at the grocery store near my home. When out of curiosity I asked if he observed the holiday in some way, he replied, “I love Christmas.” He planned to celebrate at the home of Christian friends.

Regardless of political persuasion, race, gender, socioeconomic status or even religion, Americans love our just-completed Christmas celebration. It might be a secular version, simply gathering with family and friends or exchanging gifts, but nevertheless, Christmas ranks as our most popular holiday, one that affects our very economy. While commercial interests have driven this day to the top, and in many ways secularized it, this holiday resonates profoundly because Americans love Jesus. A 2011 Public Policy Polling survey found that 90 percent viewed Jesus favorably, only one percentage point behind the first-place Abraham Lincoln.

Most Americans take as true the story of Jesus’ birth. A December Pew Research Center survey found not only that 89 percent of evangelicals believe it is historically accurate but also that 58 percent of people who have no religious affiliation believe all or part. A 2012 Rasmussen Reports poll discovered that 76 percent of Americans believed that Christmas should be about the infant Jesus rather than the secular Santa.

The resonance of this holiday reflects a deeply embedded Protestant ethic that now transcends its religious origin. This ethic, as described by the sociologist Max Weber at the dawn of the 20th century, glorifies the self-made person who climbs out of poverty. It also extols the virtue of self-sacrifice and the role of divine providence. It is little accident that Jesus ranks with Abraham Lincoln, both of whom embody these traits for Americans.

As Lincoln was born in a log cabin and grew up in poverty, so, too, did Jesus. The Gospel of Luke has Mary give birth in an animal shed and lay her baby in a feeding trough. The way Jesus and Lincoln rose from poverty to prominence is not all that links the two; both were seen to have lived and died for others.

The two were connected almost immediately after Lincoln’s assassination. Ohio Congressman James A. Garfield stated only five hours after Lincoln died, “It may be almost impious to say it, but it does seem that Lincoln’s death parallels that of the Son of God.” Ex-slave Lewis Jenkins said, “I think Abe Lincoln was next to Jesus Christ. The best human man ever lived.” The Rev. N.L. Rice, in a sermon on the day of Lincoln’s national funeral, preached, “There was a Providence over the man.”

Although only broad parallels actually exist between Lincoln and Jesus, the connections reveal that our annual celebration of Christmas represents more to our nation than a Christian religious festival, of which there are many throughout the year. The celebration of Christ’s birth signifies that each person, regardless of his or her circumstances at birth, has a divinely endowed potential. The holiday extolls the redeeming value of giving sacrificially for others. While Christmas celebrates the birth of the Son of God for Christians, this day also expresses who we are and who we would be as Americans.

This reflection was published in the Clayton News-Star on January 11, 2014.

An American Christmas Article in the Clayton News-Star

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Saturday, 11 July 2020