The holidays have become an awkward time. Should one’s “Christmas card” say, “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Holidays,” or “Happy Whatever”? Should public seasonal decorations and displays include all of the various religious and cultural festivals of these weeks, Christmas, Kwanza, and Hanukkah, or none of the above.
Sea-Tac Airport has settled the matter in favor of “none.” Its offering is a chilly display of winter birches, white and blue and indeterminate in meaning.
I was in New York City last week and took a walk on Fifth Avenue to see the window displays of the various stores. Frankly, it was odd. Not only were there no mangers and wise men, there weren’t even any Victorian Christmas scenes, or model railroads carrying people through quaint Alpine villages or winter wonderlands.
Some of the windows I saw were either just abstract displays of lights or they featured pop culture icons in shifting kaleidoscopes of light and sound. Other windows seemed to be inspired by themes that might have been drawn from the city’s Museum of Natural History. There were windows of explorers and jungle scenes, airplanes, and hot air balloons.
In one stretch of windows, words were gaily bannered above the displays of hippopotami and tigers. One window said, “Merry.” Nothing more. Just “Merry.” You fill in the blank (provided you think there is one). Another window was hung with the word, “Happy.” Again, no “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Holidays.” Just “Happy.” I guess you’d have to call that playing it safe.
At Rockefeller Plaza with its famous ice rink and beautifully lit tree, there were decorative posters that featured a snowstorm of adjectives like “magical,” “wondrous,” “awesome,” “thrilling,” and “fantastic.” No nouns, just a blitz of adjectives. We’re excited, the posters seemed to declare, but we have no idea about what, or at least we’re not telling.
Some religious groups have put pressure on retailers to retain religious language and Christian-themed displays, threatening boycotts if retailers don’t go along. But that strikes me as an effort that is at odds with the Christmas story itself. That story is not about using political power to compel your will. Arguably, the Christmas story is a challenge to coercive powers, as the infant Jesus and his parents flee the wrath of Herod and his soldiers.
I would think that the efforts of Christian groups might be more wisely given to encouraging their own constituents to embody the values of their faith than to organizing boycotts. Or instead of religious groups exerting pressure to see that the materialistic excess of the season is baptized with Christian messages, how about critiquing that excess in light of Christian or religious values?
My own favorite entries into the holiday confusion are the Flash Mob Hallelujah Choruses that have popped up various places and can be seen on the Internet. The way these things go is that you’re in some place like a mall or a food court when without warning one person launches boldly into the opening lines of Handel’s famous Chorus. Moments later another singer answers the first. More and more singers join in, as people pop up from the food court lunches or step aside from their shopping. It turns out that it is a choir, or group of choirs, who have ambushed the unsuspecting shoppers with joy.
The response of the bystanders, after the briefest confusion, is delight. Some join in the singing. Others get out their camera phones. Children are hoisted onto shoulders for a better view. People take the hand of a companion as if strangely moved.The unexpected intrusion of the holy in the midst of the ordinary of these happy flash mobs seems to me is more in keeping with the Gospel message than heavy-handed efforts to 'Put Christ back in Christmas.'
For the three or four minutes that the Chorus lasts, people are caught up and joined together in an experience of transcendence that suggests something more than the mundane. When it’s all over the singers simply return to what they were doing. Talking on the phone, pushing a mop on the mall maintenance crew, eating their lunch.
I suppose someone could argue that there is some sort of Christian triumphalism here, (“King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and He shall reign forever and forever”), but no one seems to react that way. Whether they see it as a gift of great music, a break in the doldrums of shopping, or an impromptu community sing-along, people of all sorts seem to delight in it. With these Flash Mob Hallelujah Choruses no public authority is legislating it or staging it. It’s an intrusion into the ordinary.
The unexpected intrusion of the holy in the midst of the ordinary of these happy flash mobs seems to me is more in keeping with the Gospel message than heavy-handed efforts to “Put Christ back in Christmas.”
The original heavenly chorus, the one that stunned the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks, was a sort of flash mob too. It caught the shepherds by surprise. One moment the heavens were filled with dazzling light and song. The next moment it was over. The shepherds, like us, are left to sort out the meaning of the moment and decide what to do next.