As someone who has lived on two continents and evolved in many cultures, I have a couple of points to make about this 2,000-year-old annual event called Christmas, especially since noelophobia (I term I have coined) puts it under attack.
I must disclose, however, that my relationship with Christmas is also personal: I was born on its eve and thus had to deal with the reality that all Christmas babies know all too well: you only get one present, you are forgotten that night, and you also forget about your own birthday.
So, had I been egocentric, I would have joined the camp fighting Santa’s day. On top of that, my parents called me “Walid,” Arabic for “the new born.” There was little resistance I could offer. Christmas marginalized my own anniversary yet became somewhat a higher birthday with which I was associated.
Until I was 12, I thought that no one would mess with Christmas. Why would anyone do such a thing? Jesus was just a tiny baby who couldn’t threaten anyone. He had no home, he was a refugee, and at birth he was surrounded only by his poor dad and mom, a donkey, and an ox. A few shepherds and their sheep came later.
I couldn’t imagine why Christmas would be in trouble: By itself it’s an enchanted story, generating immense feelings of happiness in the hearts of celebrants around the world.
In the Eastern Mediterranean, I hadn’t experienced yet the commercialization of la fete de noel. Through books, newspapers, and TVs, we knew only that almost all cultures enjoyed Christmas, even though not all societies shared its theological meaning. In the old days of multiethnic Beirut, not only Christians but also many Muslims and Druze erected Christmas trees, and Santa visited kids across the sectarian divide. So far, everything was good.
But then I learned that Christmas was persecuted in many countries of that region, including the land of its genesis. Indeed, the oldest Christian communities of the world, stretching from Egypt to Iran, were among the most suppressed.
The ruling regimes in Syria and Iraq tightly regulated Christmas: Santa had to be a Baathist.
In Iran, the Khomeinists banned decorations in the streets: Christians had to whisper carols inside their homes.
In Saudi Arabia, Christmas was forbidden by law, and in Sudan, the militias of Khartoum decimated African celebrations of the event.
The Holy Land got its share, as Gaza’s jihadists chased out the enclave’s Christians.
The war against this holiday in the Greater Middle East was the other face of the greater jihad against the infidels.
But I also learned about the resilience of Christmas against all regimes and in spite of terror during my life in the Middle East. From Tehran to Baghdad, from Khartoum to Damascus, trees were set up and decorations installed inside homes. Santa would visit apartments discreetly. Even in Saudi Arabia and under the Taliban, underground Papa Noels would slip presents under kids’ beds.
In these lands of extreme intolerance to infidel holidays, a Christmas resistance movement would enlist not only Christians but also Muslims, agnostics, and sometimes atheists. Strange feast, I always thought: It doesn’t matter which theology it serves, for it has become a celebration of hope for humanity, in the center of which was a baby.
But I received a cultural shock when I relocated to these shores of the Atlantic in the 1990s. My encounter with Christmas in America was two-dimensional: elation at how this country celebrates the event, and surprise at how some relentlessly fight its symbols.
Ironically, Christmas becomes so opulent in our American culture that we forget that the baby in the manger was poorer than the poorest in Africa. But at least people are free to celebrate however they want: bourgeois, at the mall, on TV, at home, on the streets, at church, with the dispossessed, or anywhere else one wishes to spend these magical moments.
Christmas is free for all — not only for faithful Christians but also for less practicing ones, non-practicing ones, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and even believers in no religion. Unlike in Wahhabi and Khomeinist lands, No one will argue with you if you celebrate Christmas in America – or so I thought.
However, I also discovered that anti-Christmas forces exist outside the lands of intolerance in the East — even here in America. I encountered noelophobia.
For about five years, I was amused that freedoms in this great country ensure that even critics of the general happiness Christmas triggers can voice their opinions. In America, you can hate Christmas or call for its banning — while under jihadi regimes you can’t even mention that it exists.
But as years passed, I noted the rise of Christmasophobia. Not in the sense of being unnerved by it, which is legitimate, but in the sense of persecuting it. During the past half a dozen years, attacks against displaying Christmas trees, mangers, and other decorations in public or on public property have widened what we now call the war against Christmas.
The anti-Christmas forces claim that traces of Christmas celebrations must be eradicated from the public sphere because it is a “religious event” and the United States is a secular country. I take exception to this.
To me, Christmas is not just a religious holiday but a tradition: read, a civil right. Indeed, the Christmas celebration has become part of a cultural context defining our very identity.
If the academic elite cannot grasp the meaning of a historic identity — even if it has been built around an initial religious narrative — they can take all the time they need to understand it.
That is their problem – not ours, the overwhelming majority of people who enjoy and celebrate these moments of peace. Bad news for the anti-Christmas hordes: Christmas has become integral part of our culture and will be defended as such. Yes, it is part of the Republic of the People by the People and is as secular as all other values and rights.
Taking away any of Christmas’ components, including Santa, the tree, the baby, the star, the three kings, and even the donkey and ox, is the equivalent of ending the rights of people to vote, own, have a fair trial, or express dissent.
Christmas is not about politics and exclusion, but defending it will be fierce. It is simple: Crushing Christmas is crushing a cultural identity and that will generate a national resistance.
Hence, we will defend Christmas as a cultural right, and we’re not making a concession on our identity, even if we’re open to new ideas all the time.
Merry Christmas to all!
Dr. Walid Phares, a writer and a global studies professor, wrote "The Confrontation: Winning the War Against Future Jihad" and is a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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