Print Friendly and PDF With Strings Attached: Charlie Madigan's Christmas column

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Charlie Madigan's Christmas column

Note:   I re-read Charlie's essay every year and have cited parts of it when someone bemoans the secularization of the season.  I tried unsuccessfully to find it on the Tribune website in order to post a link to it.  I've cut-and-pasted the entire text. 

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Looking for Christ in all the wrong places

by Charles M. Madigan
Chicago Tribune
December 11, 2005

It's Christmastime again, and the Christians, well, at least some of the Christians, are on the warpath against retailers who opt to describe this seasonal cash bonanza in less than religious terms. This is a sign, we are told, of "anti-Christian and anti-Christmas" bias.  The argument seems to be that if you just call it a "holiday" season without going the full-tilt "Christmas" route then you somehow demean the legacy of St. Luke's Gospel, the only place the whole Christian Christmas has ever actually existed on the record.

They are wrong.

The critics want to make a prophet center out of what is actually a profit center.

Where St. Luke got the Christmas story is anyone's guess, because it doesn't appear in any kind of detail in the other Gospels. In some of them, Jesus just shows up and starts preaching and giving lessons. Only St. Luke puts him in a manger and opens the doorway to choirs of angels and mysterious heavenly developments. To be sure, Matthew's Gospel introduces the Wise Men and the star, but the birth itself is very matter of fact.

If you want the glories of Christmas, you go to St. Luke. Sourcing is not an issue with me on this story.  Maybe God told him. I can't know.  Despite that, the St. Luke's Christmas story is the one I prefer.

I have constructed my belief on it for more than half a century, and I care not one whit whether it is provable, likely, a fantasy, a warm and basically silly myth or any other criticism that is applied to what I think is just one of the best stories of all time. I don't know whether monks put it there, whether a committee of early church bishops cobbled it together from snippets, who St. Luke actually was, what language he might have written it in and how many angels could have fit on the head of whatever was used as a pin in ancient Palestine.

I do believe in it. Take it or leave it. It's a huge Christmas gift from God that requires no evidence, no explanation. I know I don't deserve it, did nothing to get it and, I am afraid, could lose it in an instant because of my cynicism, my occasional hardness of heart, the part of me that is callous, cruel, selfish and unfeeling.  But for now, it's healthy.

You should envy me, because most people abandon this kind of experience in late childhood. I view the Christmas story as something to take to the bank of  emotion, something to tap when you are confronted by the question: "What is the right thing to do?" which happens to me all the time.

Stories show us the path. We need and live on stories. Some of them are myth and some of them are real, but they are stories that point us properly down the pathway of life. The Christmas story is just boffo in my book, then, warms my heart and makes me want to try to live a better life.  I don't think for one instant it belongs at the center of the annual retail blitz.

The Christians, in other words, are so very wrong about this one. You want a place to put the Christmas story, to revere it, to nurture it and take sustenance from it? Then put it in your heart.
But don't put it in Target.

The conservative Christian argument seems to be that we should all rush out and boycott Target, Sears, Lowe's, even OfficeMax and places like that because they don't emphasize the "Christ" part of the holiday.

I would go in just the opposite direction. Thank you, Target and everyone else, for recognizing that this has become, for many people, nothing more than a big commercial celebration and reason to have office drinks, buy gifts and stick lights and holiday trappings all over everything.

The last thing in the world I want is something that implies that Christ will be happy if I use my credit card to buy some dandy power tools for my sons, a hat for my spouse, a new collar for my dog and something shiny and delightful for myself.    I don't want some marketing hawk to find a way to link the Christ child, in his blessed, doomed innocence, to an increase in short-term debt at my house.

If they want to pump their stores full of holiday music, fine, just stay clean away from the classics.  Put "Silent Night" on the disc player at Sam's Club, and what you have is blasphemy in my book. I don't want Christ anywhere near those places.

But I do want them full of holiday good cheer, champagne sales and lots of brand name items that didn't sell last year deeply discounted to fit my current holiday needs. I want them to report in January that they sold more inventory than anyone has ever sold, that they are fat and happy, and that everyone gets to keep working for another year. I don't expect to turn to them for Christ.

Most of what we experience at Christmas isn't very Christ-like, anyhow.  Take the tree. Go to Captain Jack's Christmas Tree Farm Web site, among others ( and take a look at where it comes from.  Not much Christianity there, for sure. Captain Jack, an Iowa guy whose job is to encourage the purchase of nice, real Christmas trees instead of plastic stuff from Asia, notes that our friends the Druids viewed holly in the house as a sign of eternal life.  The Romans, when they were honoring Saturn, put evergreen boughs and special lights in the house.  

Martin Luther is described as the first of the Christians to light up pine trees with candles. He wanted to evoke thoughts of stars twinkling in the Bethlehem skies at the time of Christ's birth. (He, too, was an obvious St. Luke fan. I am flattered.)

The Christmas tree habit didn't hit America until the Revolution, when it was brought to our shores by the Hessian mercenaries hired by the Brits to help put down our little insurgency, Captain Jack reports.

They were so infatuated by the glowing Christmas tree, the legend says, that they abandoned their Christmastime guard posts to celebrate the season, an opening George Washington used to sneak in and whomp them a good one.

I don't know who invented the bubbling candle-shaped Christmas-tree light, but the character was pure genius in my book. It is the best of decorations.  But I'm not for an instant going to think of Christ when I look at one.

For that, you go not to Target, not to Field's*, not even to Bethlehem or to the Bible.  You go inside, where there are no presents, no sales pitches, no hustle of any kind.  There, instead, await choirs of angels, if you are so blessed.

Copyright (c) 2005, Chicago Tribune
Field's became Macy's in 2006. 


1 comment:

  1. What a great article. Hum, his thought's on St. Luke's gospel is thought provoking. I also think of Christmas and Advent as the time to prepare. Sometimes that preparation gets overwhelming! But I love it when the family can be all together and share our lives and memories.


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