(EDITOR’S NOTE: Faith Matters is a column written by the social concerns committee of the United Churches of Lycoming County. The monthly feature will include local faith-based comment on significant social issues facing us today. Letters reacting to the columns should be brief and clear and may be submitted to Opinions expressed in the columns are those of the writers and the social concerns committee, not necessarily the Sun-Gazette.)

Thirty years ago I was walking behind the crowd at a Christmas parade, keeping up with a flatbed truck on which from the church I pastored perched a live Nativity scene. At one of those stops, as parades are prone to make, I overheard one woman tell another, “Look at that. Now religion is trying to take over Christmas.” I chalk that up to ignorance but also to the fact that the church was not very evangelical in those days.

Day before yesterday my son showed me a cartoon of three children sitting outside the principal’s office in sure and certain trouble. The first said, “I said damn,” the second, “I said gun,” and the third said, “I said Christmas.”

This morning the comic strip of this newspaper had Mallard Fillmore watching TV, which was announcing, “The following Christmas special actually mentions Christianity. Viewer discretion is advised.”

Christmas controversy among Christians has raged about the date of Jesus’ birth, adaptations of certain pagan symbols (tree, yule log), Santa Claus traditions, etc., since early church history. It took off big time in the Reformation, as one might expect. The Puritans of New England outlawed Christmas celebration in Boston from 1659 to 1681, and it was not fashionable until the 19th century. Examples are too many for this article.

Today, Christmas is attacked basically because of its official status as a federal government holiday in a secular society and its superimposing position in the midst of other religions. This year the USPS issued an advertisement for holiday stamps that included a stamp clearly marked Kwanzaa and another marked “Happy Hanukkah,” but the Christmas stamp omitted the word “Christmas” altogether.

So why are there so many illustrations of this “war on Christmas?” Why so many secular themes and traditions that are non-religious or irreligious that deck the malls? Why are department stores so willing to impose restrictions on their employees and merchandise? Last year I looked in vain for a Holy Family Nativity display for the yard.

Could it be because the holiday period has been so abused? This year, commerce got a jump on everything by having “Black Friday” on Thanksgiving Day. So, in the larger picture, we no longer give thanks for God for His provision – but for our own. We live in a materialistic society in which people will purchase on credit if they have to, whether they can afford it or not. So brush any reference to God aside, and be thankful for the availability of stuff, lots of stuff. Forget family, forget God, go for “it.”

When the focus of any celebration – family, religious, or memorial – is blurred, the meaning is dimmed, and the generations to come lose sight of something valuable: family reunions, veterans celebrations, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter. When values are lowered, faith is diminished and when faith is diminished, mystery no longer is investigated, truth no longer is valued as the foundation, life becomes Mr. Spock’s logic, holiness a pipe dream. MERRY CHRISTMAS.

– Smith is the Shepherd of the Streets for the United Churches of Lycoming County and a permanent deacon at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Williamsport.