The elderly man who scanned my purchases at Target this week concluded our brief interaction with the valediction “Merry Christmas!” There was just a touch of mischief in his voice; he seemed to delight in saying the phrase, especially as an employee of a corporation known for its progressive politics.
It seems that President Trump would approve. He has alternately attracted scorn and approbation from the likely places for pointedly including the traditional greeting in public statements and encouraging others — especially retail workers — to do so as well. In fact, at an event in Utah, he recently declared that Christmas is “bigger and better than ever” on his watch.
On one hand, this attempt to politically capitalize on Christmas is simply part of the president’s cynical and ham-fisted pantomiming of Christian politics. But it also emerges from a view of the way personal interactions are supposed to work that Trump imports from his particular brand of business experience. If, as the president seems to think, nearly every interaction and relationship is defined by antagonistic negotiation, then sensitivity to the emotions and desires of others is at best superfluous and at worst a childish and counterproductive vice.
Now, I don’t actually think that there has ever been a huge cohort of people out there who are gravely offended by hearing the words “Merry Christmas.” The politicization of holiday greetings has been a particularly silly proxy battle in the culture wars; it has been useful to both sides to pretend that mentioning the dominant winter holiday makes large numbers of marginalized people/adolescent snowflakes feel unwelcome, even if few ever express any real discomfort with it either way.
And yet, Trump’s method of engaging in this battle seems calculated to reify the mythical conflict. For the president, the traditional Christmas greeting is valuable not as a sharing of the glad tidings of the Savior’s birth, but only as a kind of rhetorical weapon whose purpose is to offend others’ sensitivities — to be “politically incorrect,” as the intolerable cliche goes.
It has always been overwrought to claim that “Merry Christmas” is intrinsically exclusive; besides the fact that the Christmas story is for and about all human beings, the feast is the dominant religious and secular event of the season. Trump, however, while channeling the most brute instincts of modern Christian politics, wants to make the Christian greeting exclusive, thus giving it not just political power, but interpersonal power.
“Merry Christmas” becomes, in this cynical understanding, exactly what oversensitive secularists have always claimed: an intentional affront. All the joy of the Incarnation and the love of the infant Jesus and the hope of salvation — that is, everything discernibly and beautifully Christian about Christmas and its traditions — are drained from the words, and what is left is only a base expression of power: “I can say this to you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I win. You lose. Ho ho ho.”
This, I implore my fellow Christians to see, is not how we bring about a renaissance of Christian culture. Say “Merry Christmas” if you want. Say “Happy holidays” if you want. (Don’t say “Season’s greetings,” unless you want to sound as sincere as a mass-produced greeting card.) But whatever you say, say it with honesty and love, not to put one over on the liberals. Every person we meet — yes, even the harried clerks frantically scanning stocking stuffers — is a human being with an eternal soul. They are not simply antagonists in our private cultural grievances and insecurities.
But this spitefulness is what Christian witness too often has been reduced to in the age of Trump, more emphasized by his presence than created by it alone. The fact that his obvious and often grotesque playacting at Christian politics has been so effective has demonstrated just how hollowed-out Christian self-understanding has become in this country.
How pathetic is it that the battleground for the future of Christian civilization is perceived to be retail-store interactions? Christians have a millennia-long heritage of civilization building, and it has come to this: The farthest our imaginations can take us in rebuilding Christian culture is haranguing Walmart associates into blandly uttering “Merry Christmas” ten thousand times a day. We cannot imagine a Christianity whose impact on our world is anything more robust than literal window dressing on consumer capitalism.
The Christmas of Trump is the Christmas of a deracinated cultural Christianity, not a living faith that calls all the world to Bethlehem to worship the Christ Child. It’s a Christmas where “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is in the window and pornography is behind the counter. It’s a Christmas where there’s a creche on public property and the homeless are evicted from it. It’s a Christmas where all the clerks say “Merry Christmas” while working unpredictable 12-hour shifts at minimum wage.
This brings me back to my Target visit, where the slow old man impishly wished me a “Merry Christmas.” Perhaps if American Christians were more preoccupied with why a septuagenarian feels compelled to work a stressful low-wage job than the words he uses to greet his customers — that is, if we articulated a faith that makes real, substantive demands on the world rather than one that is an accessory to identity politics — we might be closer to conceiving of a culture where Jesus Christ reigns, and not just in the seasonal aisle.