On December 23, a passenger was tossed off a plane at New York’s La Guardia Airport because of his reaction to an airline worker who wished him a Merry Christmas. The man was waiting to board American Airlines Flight 1140 when the gate agent began welcoming everyone with the traditional season’s greeting.
As the story goes, the offended passenger responded by shouting, “You shouldn’t say that because not everyone celebrates Christmas.” The agent replied, “Well, what should I say then?” “Don’t say ‘Merry Christmas!'” snapped Scrooge before hurrying past her to board the plane. Once seated, another American Airlines employee warmly greeted Ebenezer; this time it was a flight attendant who made the same unforgiveable error of wishing our Yule Tide traveler a “Merry Christmas.” Well, that was the last straw. “Don’t say Merry Christmas” he raged before launching into a tirade whereby he presumed to lecture the attendants, the pilot, and all others within earshot about their festive faux pas. The crew tried to calm the man down, but he refused to be consoled as he continued his harangue. The end result was that he was escorted off the plane as his audience of fellow passengers burst into cheers and applause at his departure.
While this story may seem humorous to many of us, let’s consider its serious side for a moment. Let’s consider the man’s premise that Christmas, i.e. the historicity of the birth of Christianity, is an offense and that this malcontent, and presumably millions of others like him, would be better off without it.
My first reaction in responding to this claim would be to ask a basic question: What would the world look like today if it weren’t for Christmas? In other words, what would life be like if our grumpy airline traveler had his way–if the “ideas and acts” of Christmas had not been “hurled across the centuries and around the world” (Thomas Cahill) some 2000 years ago?
Whether you’re a believer in the theology of Christmas or simply an open-minded and honest historian (armchair or professional) you must confess to the impact of the “Silent night’s and Holy night’s” sociology and cosmology. The fact of the matter is that the story of the birth of Christ has dramatically changed humanity’s understanding of life and the way we live it. From Saul of Tarsus to the Emperor Constantine; to Wesley, Wilberforce, and Whitfield; to Chesterton and Lewis, millions of lives have been turned from deception and debauchery to compassion and love because of Christmas.
History tells us that the Greek and Roman cultures stopped the practice of “exposure,” otherwise known as infanticide and child abandonment, because of Christmas. The Celtics, Prussians, Aztecs, and Mayans abandoned human sacrifice because of Christmas. Sexual fidelity and respect for marriage was normalized in the Roman Empire and throughout the west because of Christmas. Women were no longer considered mere property and/or chattel because of Christmas. Compassion for the sick and the dying during the great plagues of Europe took place because of Christmas. Charity for the poor, for orphans, and for the old became expected during the Industrial Revolution because of Christmas. Hospitals, child labor laws, education, economic freedom, the dignity of labor, civil rights, private property, and racial equality all were established and promoted because of Christmas. Slavery was abolished and the sanctity of all human life was celebrated because of Christmas.
Christmas changed the world. We are told in the ancient book written by Matthew [1:21] that “His name shall be called Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” and a brief look back at history tells us that, indeed, this is so true! Christmas not only saves us from our own sins but the “ideas and acts” of Christmas have saved us from the sins of millions around us; millions who prior to the birth of Christ would have ignored us, used us, oppressed us, enslaved us, or even killed us in the halls of their governments and on the altars of their gods.
The American Airlines attendant had it so right. To the ill-informed and intolerant passenger of Flight 1140, and all those like him, I join in saying, “Well, what should I say then,” other than “Merry Christmas!”
–Dr. Everett Piper is president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University in Bartlesville, Okla.