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MOHLER: ‘Holiday tree’ can’t change meaning

Significance of Christmas endures

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Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee recently incited a controversy in his state over an unlikely issue -- what to call the large decorated evergreen tree in the Statehouse. Mr. Chafee insists that the blue spruce is a "holiday tree," suggesting that calling the official tree a "Christmas tree" would be akin to requiring schoolchildren to pray.

The governor's dictate flies in the face of his state's House of Representatives, which passed a resolution requiring the tree to be known as a Christmas tree "and not as a 'holiday tree' or other non-traditional terms."

Regardless of the governor's concern, the people of Rhode Island are not likely to follow his dictate. The decorated evergreen tree is now so commonly associated with Christmas that no amount of political correctness can convince Americans that the tree is merely about generic winter holidays.

Many Christians are easily outraged by the actions of Mr. Chafee and others who attempt to secularize the season. At times, the concern is legitimate, as when civic officials attempt to expunge Christian language and symbols from the public square. In the main, however, the so-called "war on Christmas" is a huge secular failure.

In that light, Christians would be well-advised to avoid grimacing when the salesman in the mall wishes us "happy holidays." Such a greeting may be a well-intentioned recognition that while most Americans celebrate Christmas, others celebrate holidays such as Hanukkah.

On the other hand, even when stores, governments and other organizations do their best to secularize the season, their efforts usually amount to a spectacular misfire.

Why? The answer is simple: Christmas cannot be secularized. Even as Mr. Chafee does his best to argue for a generic "holiday tree" in his Statehouse, the official state holiday remains Dec. 25, identified on the Rhode Island secretary of state's website as "Christmas Day."

A similar failure is evident in the work of those who have persuaded academics and textbook publishers to stop referring to years according to the traditional "B.C." and "A.D." Instead, many now use the designations "B.C.E." and "C.E." It seems that references to B.C. as "before Christ" and A.D. as "anno Domini" (the year of the Lord) were seen to unfairly privilege Christianity. An increasingly secular age demanded a new system of classifying years. B.C.E. is "before common era" and C.E. is now "common era." Problem solved? Not at all. The very numbers of the years are counted according to the traditional date to mark the birth of Christ. If you really want to expunge Christ from the counting of years, you will have to create an entirely new calendar.

More than any other season of the year, Christmas refuses to be secularized. Americans may be increasingly secular, with a recent report indicating that as many as 1 in 5 Americans is now unaffiliated with any faith at all. Yet most know that the Christmas season is about the story of the Christ child born in Bethlehem.

Much of what the world does during the Christmas season, we must acknowledge, has little to do with the Christian message. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has no part in the Christmas story as revealed in the Bible. The Christmas message of the child who was God in human flesh often has been confused, denied and manipulated. The amazing thing is how the truth still shines through.

Those who cast scorn on such truths as the Virgin birth may scoff at Christmas and at Christians. Every Christmas season seems to feature those who take to the airwaves and the Internet to advertise their rejection of the Christmas story.

Nevertheless, they can't ignore it. Try as they might, they cannot sideline it. They may want to talk about generic holidays, but they are greeted constantly with "merry Christmas." Even when they do their best to deny the truths of Christmas, they draw attention to them.

Christians should work hard to avoid being thin-skinned at Christmas. Harried sales clerks are almost surely not trying to offend when they wish you "happy holidays."

We do know that there will be some, often in lofty places, who will do their best to deny the message of Christmas.

Come to think of it, that is how the Christmas story began. According to the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod did his very best to put an end to the story. Nevertheless, God's plan could not be thwarted. As the angelic host told the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke, the child who was born that night in lowly Bethlehem is "a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."

Above all, the Christmas season should remind Christians to present a winsome witness to the real meaning of the season. No matter how hard some may try, Christmas cannot and will not be secularized. It is irreducibly supernatural.

Remember that as you ponder that blue spruce in the Rhode Island Statehouse, your college student's history textbook and the "happy holidays" sign that greets you at the mall. It's still really about Christmas, and we all know it. Christ is the lion who will not be tamed, and Christmas is the season that cannot be secularized. Merry Christmas.

R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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