Celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is a custom familiar to everyone raised in Western cultures, whether or not they happen to share the Christian faith. So important is Christmas to Americans that even the traditional holiday greeting is misused as a partisan weapon — seized by a political figure no less profane, irreligious and insincere than Donald Trump, who proclaims he will restore its meaning.
Complaining peevishly of a mythical “war on Christmas,” the president-elect evidently believes the holiday’s most compelling aspect is the right to impose its observance on others who may not share his professed piety. In a country founded on freedom from religious coercion of any kind, Trump repeatedly promised to “assault” the domestic enemies of Christendom, which in the minds of Trump’s followers include Barack Obama and his family. Never mind that on Dec. 1, the president lit the National Christmas Tree in a ceremony aimed at unifying the country, regardless of faith or ethnicity, with musical stars singing carols and the first lady reading “The Night Before Christmas.”
For a politician who cannot correctly identify any portion of his favorite book, the Bible, such ferocious displays of piety reveal how little thought Trump has ever devoted to the real message of the Christmas story — which remains essential in a world where children, refugees and the poor seem destined for ever greater suffering.
It is a story, not a history. The versions of events set forth in Scripture by Luke and Matthew differ in salient respects, but that should not matter to anyone who understands the difference between religious allegory and literal truth. Both those with faith and those without can find truth in the allegory, regardless of the narrative details.
Christmas tells us of a child born to a carpenter and his wife, impoverished working people living in ancient Judea, ruled by a distant dictatorial regime and its sanctioned local agents — the ruling elite of their era. Joseph and Mary were undeniably homeless and, according to one version of the story, they were refugees from political oppression, forced to migrate to another land. Rejected by society, the little family was driven into a manger — the equivalent of a cardboard shelter today — where Jesus was born in a cradle of straw amid the animals.
It is a story that we can imagine transpiring in our own time, among the Central American migrants, homeless in a California border town, or among the Syrian refugees, freezing and hungry in northern Greece. The analogy is clearly lost on politicians like Trump, who not only assure us that we need not concern ourselves with their fate, but that we must coldly spurn small children for the sake of our own comfort and safety. Almost in the same breath, these cynical hypocrites proclaim their eternal allegiance to Jesus.
It is not a political or ideological discourse, but the story of Christmas is a parable of light delivered to a world of pain and darkness, on a date that marks the winter solstice. Its infant prophet is a harbinger of universal love, an unequivocal embrace of the sinners, the impious, the unclean, the rejected, the foreigner, the stranger, the ill and the poor.
What does that story mean to leaders who spend their days deciding how to give the hungry less food, give the sick less medical care and give the elderly less security, all for the sake of laying up still greater riches for those who are already too wealthy?
It is a story whose message the pastors and theologians, not least among them Pope Francis, reiterate every year in this season: The spirit of God arrived not clothed in power and glory, but embodied in a weak, tiny, and defenseless baby who endures cold, poverty and rejection.
The face of that child is the face of every innocent child deprived of comfort and joy. If only our culture warriors would declare a truce, stop shouting “Merry Christmas!” — and listen to what that child is trying to tell us.