The holiday is upon us. The streets and stores are gaily decorated; music is in the air. There’s a scurry for cards and presents; an expectation of families gathering. Politically,argument over whether Santa is black or white, and what color Jesus was.
All of this violates the spirit of the holiday. This is Christmas — a mass celebrating the birth of Christ. What matters is not the color of Jesus or Santa, but their character. Jesus represents promise, hope and redemption. Santa is a commercial icon, representing buying and selling, credit and debt.
Each year at this time, I urge that we remember the real story of Christmas. It’s not about a holiday; it is about a holy day. Jesus was born under occupation to a couple ordered to go far from home. The innkeeper told his parents that there was no room at the inn. He was born in a manger, an “at-risk baby.”
He came at a time of great expectation among the poor and the oppressed. Prophets had predicted that a mighty Messiah would be born — a king of kings — to defeat the occupiers and free the people.
Jesus was that liberator, but he was the Prince of Peace, not a man of war. He gathered disciples, not armies. He converted, rather than conquered, the occupier. He accumulated no worldly wealth. He threw the money lenders from the temple. He taught us about love, hope, charity and faith.
We will be judged, he told us, by how we treat “the least of these.” We will be graded on how we treat the stranger on the Jericho Road.
You don’t need to be a Christian to understand the relevance of his teachings today. We live in one of the richest nations in the world. Our princes of commerce live lavish lives that exceed the grandest excesses of barons and kings of old. Yet, as a recent report by the United Nations Children’s Fund shows, the U.S. ranks next to last, 34th of 35 developed countries, in the number of children raised in poverty. Over 20 million people are in need of full-time work. Over 4 million are long-term unemployed. While corporate profits are hitting records, workers’ wages are at new lows as a percentage of GDP. Most Americans are struggling simply to stay afloat. Household incomes continue to decline, as the top 1 percent pockets a staggering 95 percent of the rewards of growth over the last three years.
Christmas is a time of giving. Neighbors contribute to their churches and schools; the buckets of the Salvation Army are filled. The wealthy complete their contributions for the year. Gifts are exchanged with families and friends.
But this year, Congress chose to cut food stamps by 7 percent, literally taking food from the mouths of 48 million of our most vulnerable citizens. Congress chose not to extend emergency jobless benefits; in January, 1.3 million Americans desperate to find work will find themselves out in the cold. This is a rich nation; we can afford to do better. Congress chose not to.
On this holiday, let us each take a moment to remember the real story. Too many get caught up in Santa’s holiday, oppressed by the need for money to buy gifts. But the real celebration is free and liberating. Let us take stock not of the presents we give or receive, but of how we treat the young in the dawn of life, the poor in the pit of life, the elderly in the dusk of life, the stranger on a dark road. Let’s pledge to lift the vulnerable children born in life’s manger out of poverty. Let’s commit to bring peace to Bethlehem. Remember the Wise Men brought gifts to the child and his parents, not to one another. And their offerings were not the real gift. The true blessing was the child himself, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
Merry Christmas, everybody.
Jesse Jackson is the founder of Rainbow PUSH.