And so it came to pass that Joseph, the earthly father of Our Savior, had to go out of town, and in his absence, my son Galen was promoted from lowly shepherd to the most famous stepfather in history.
I was notified of the ascension when an apologetic Sunday-school teacher called the day before our church’s nativity pageant. Any fury about having to produce rapidly a costume befitting a first-century carpenter–even Home Depot isn’t that well stocked–was overcome by the pride of finally having a Joseph in the family.
Our oldest son, after all, had been a cow at his nativity pageant six years ago. Our eldest daughter was always an angel. To finally break into the Holy Family was huge, even if Galen would be Joseph by default and it wasn’t a speaking role. (In the kindergarten nativity pageant, as in the Gospels, Joseph doesn’t have a whole lot to do.)
But I could savor the moment only for a moment. There was the matter of the costume. A mere shepherd could wear a mere bed sheet. Saint Joseph called for grandeur: something that could be acquired in the costume department at Party City for $19.95 or more. But alas, there was no time. We raided the Halloween costume box in the basement.
And so, when the kindergartners at St. James Catholic Church knelt around a large plastic doll in a cardboard manger–the angels and shepherds, the Wise Men, and the Virgin Mary–the cherubic St. Joseph wore an authentic kiffiyeh from Israel, scuffed brown sandals from Payless … and a Darth Maul robe.
Look, it wasn’t our first choice. We have a wide array of vestments from various “Star Wars” movies; unfortunately, the one that actually fit belonged to the evil, devil-faced Sith from The Phantom Menace. But no one had to know, except for St. Joseph’s siblings, who snickered on the back row throughout the whole production.
Of course, they would have snickered, anyway, even without the inside joke. The children’s Christmas pageant, currently playing at any American church near you, is a gaudy rite of Christian parenthood. At your first one, you get all misty-eyed and warm-hearted and you want to put down your camcorder (but only for a minute) and hug the people next to you and joyously tell them, “That’s my son up there! The cow!”
The second time, you forego the video camera and take a couple of still shots. The third time… well, really, who needs pictures? And so forth and so on, until you wake up one morning, and it seems perfectly reasonable to dress St. Joseph in a garment formerly known as Darth Maul.
There is, I’m sure, a grim-faced Puritan out there who will find this offensive and say we are skirting sacrilege. But upon reflection during an excruciatingly long middle-school winter-band concert–another painful aspect of parenting no one warns you about at Lamaze–I think “Joseph: Episode One” nicely illustrates why this thing we call Christmas holds so much power, and why Christians ought not worry so much.
It seems everyone who celebrates Christmas is in full-panic mode over the occasional public squelching of this secondary Christian holiday. (Let’s not forget that Easter, not Christmas, is the seminal event of the Christian calendar.) An outraged John Gibson writes about “the War on Christmas.” Fox News warns of “Christmas Under Attack!” Bill O’Reilly grumbles that, “If they could, secularists would cancel Christmas as a holiday.”
But here’s the thing: They can’t. And–ironically, for those who grouse about the commercialization of Christmas–that’s because of the beautiful thing that is the American free market.
Sure, Macy’s wants its employees to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” So what? It’s still the case that 82 percent of Macy’s shoppers are buying Christmas presents this month, and no amount of semantic shuffling will change that.
Sure, a bank teller this morning wished me “Happy Holidays” at the end of my transaction. But the lollipops he gave me for the kids were red and green …. the colors of .. (Bueller? Bueller?)
Sure, a grade school in Alexandria, Va., eliminated “White Christmas” from its winter-concert playlist this year. But turn on the holiday radio station in any decent-sized U.S. city, and you can hear lyrics like “And man will live forever more, because of Christmas Day,” explicit Christmas carols, sung with an evangelical fervor that would be hard to top outside a country church in the south.
Try finding that on a light-rock mix in, say, April. But “holiday” music–Christmas music–thrives because it sells. The free market reigns. It will take care of its own.
As will Christmas. To fret about the real or perceived “threats” to Christmas is pointless. Christmas has power of its own, and–like the U.S. military, like the planet, like the universe–it can take a few hits and go on.
Christmas has power. It has power to fill empty pews, bringing out those who ministers call “C&E” (Christmas and Easter) Christians to hear a message that might heal a heart, lighten a load, or even bring them back again in January.
Christmas has power to ignite the American economy early on a Friday in November, and then, amazingly, bring that mighty beast to a stop for an entire day in late December. Christmas has power to close McDonald’s.
Christmas has power to bring a cease-fire in wars–big, global ones, and little, domestic ones.
Christmas has power to compel even non-believers to behave as if they believe, to decorate, shop, celebrate, as if they, too, know that man will live forever more because of Christmas Day. Christmas has power to make them want to believe, even if they don’t.
Christmas has power to turn Ebenezer Scrooge (and his descendents… we are legion) from misers to philanthropists, if only for a few weeks, and to grow the hearts of grinches.
Christmas has power to turn dreary streets of ticky-tacky bungalows into delightful, inviting homes that sparkle and twinkle and smell of gingerbread.
Christmas has power to turn brats into angels, Darth Mauls into St. Josephs, swaddled babes into kings.
Everybody, calm down. Stop and smell the nutmeg. Christmas has staying power. A little commercialization won’t diminish that power; a little secularization won’t make it less potent. People who wish otherwise can say “happy holidays” until they’re blue in the face, but the red and the green will always be with us.