ARLINGTON, Va. - In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is surrounded by merriment and acts of charity. None of it, not even the long-suffering kindness of his nephew, has the slightest influence on his hard heart. It is only when the angel prototypes - the "ghosts" of Christmas Past, Present and Future - confront him with what might be called his "sin" that Scrooge comes to his senses, repents and is "converted."
That message of conversion - indeed, the "original intent" of the Christmas message - is obscured in the boisterous celebration of something that has nothing to do with the "reason for the season" and now also involves lawyers and complaining liberal and conservative ministers who either demand that people not celebrate Christmas or want everyone to celebrate it as they do.
The battles of Christmas 2004 include protesters in Denver who marched and sang carols along an official parade route because they had been denied entry by "Parade of Lights" sponsors. Rules written by event sponsors prohibit floats and other expressions with a Christmas or religious theme. Officials did allow the Two Spirits Indian group to participate. The group considers homosexuality to be "holy."
In New Jersey, the school district of South Orange and Maplewood has decreed that school bands will be limited to secular songs, such as "Frosty the Snowman" and "Winter Wonderland." The school district policy also bans instrumental "religious" songs, perhaps because some non-Christian might be reminded of Jesus, get offended and file a lawsuit.
In malls everywhere, store clerks are instructed to say "Happy Holidays" to customers. You never know when a Kwanzaa shopper, a Hanukkah observer or an atheist might hear a greeting that does not reflect the sentiments of their "holiday."
Among the problems of trying to have it both ways - Christmas and "holidays" - is having it neither way. The message of "O Holy Night" cannot co-exist with "Sleigh Ride" and "chestnuts roasting on an open fire." Equating or synthesizing the two has diminished the One who defines Christmas.
The culture has shoplifted a most glorious event - God becoming man - and appropriated it for the sole purpose of persuading people to buy stuff they can't afford for people who don't need it.
Culture increasingly prohibits any discussion or expression in public places of the real meaning of Christmas, lest that message inhibit the promotion of commerce.
Even Thanksgiving is being transformed from an event in which Pilgrims thanked God for His blessings into a meal of Super Bowl proportions and football. Children's textbooks teach the fiction that the Pilgrims thanked the Indians, not God, for their bounty.
Easter long ago ceased being about resurrection, and now the focus is on bunnies, eggs and chocolate. Santa has become a God-substitute, who gives but requires nothing more than a child being "nice," and even that is negotiable.
Christmas observers should end this charade. People who take the central meaning of Christmas seriously should not lend their credibility to those who obscure and subordinate that meaning to drunken office parties and shopping mall visits where they buy gifts for everyone except the One whose birthday is supposedly being observed.
The Christmas celebrant has become too fixated on the secular culture and desires to go along in order to get along. What would happen if increasing numbers of Christmas believers declined to participate in the orgy of consumption and instead asked the baby who became a man - and much more - what He would like for His birthday?
He gave us plenty of instructions, beginning with "feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison" and "care for widows and orphans," not to mention "love your enemies" and "pray for those who persecute you." That last one is especially tough, so we file lawsuits and complain that we get no respect.
The secularists can still have their days off and they can call those days, including Dec. 25, anything they wish. Let them display on public or private property whatever they like, or nothing.
Let those of us for whom Christmas has a historic and eternal meaning celebrate it in our hearts, our lives and our relationships as never before. You never know when an Ebenezer Scrooge might take notice and be converted.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.