Christmas parades – they’re ubiquitous at this time of year. Last week our North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops was at a learning retreat, and, wouldn’t you know it, we found ourselves in the middle of a Christmas parade! School bands, floats, reindeer, lights, and, of course, Santa Claus. What could be more quintessentially American than a holiday parade?
Well, it’s not that simple anymore. On November 29, a The New York Times article noted a Facebook post that appeared from the mayor’s office in Charleston, West Virginia in early October. “The Charleston Winter Parade will begin at the corner of the Kanawha Boulevard and Capitol Street.” Charleston, a small city of 48,000, is the capitol of West Virginia, and has hosted a Christmas parade for many years. It’s a way of bringing the city together as the holiday season kicks off.
The reaction to the Facebook post, however, was immediate and unfortunate. Before this year, the parade had always been called the Charleston Christmas Parade, but the city now had a new mayor, Amy Goodwin. Not only is Goodwin the first female mayor of Charleston, but she is an “outsider,” not having been born and raised in Charleston. Goodwin’s desire was to have a parade that modeled inclusivity, and she felt that by changing Christmas to “Winter,” people who are not Christians wouldn’t be offended. She said, “I wanted to show that Charleston is a welcoming and inclusive city.”
Charleston is typical of many of our communities around the country that have had to cope with a changing environment. Many jobs that provided the backbone of Charleston, like chemical manufacturing and the coal industry, have been eliminated, resulting in stores closing, declining population, and the necessity of reinvention.
Mayor Goodwin had been trying some new and innovative things, such as having clergy of different faiths (Christian, Jewish, Imam) pray before city council meetings. Unfortunately, she did not seek input from other city council members before announcing her decision to rename the parade. While Goodwin was characterized by some as a liberal wanting to eliminate Christmas, the local rabbi was supportive, and Ibtesam Sue Barazi, vice president of the local Islamic Association, applauded her desire to bring together people of various faith traditions.
After several days of negative reaction from all over the city, with some even claiming attacks on Christianity, Mayor Goodwin decided to reverse her decision. The Winter Parade was off, and the Charleston Christmas Parade was back in business. Goodwin said, “It has been an amazing process, an enlightening process the last two days. I will say the type of vitriol, the kind of vitriol that has come forth since we announced this suggested change has actually been really hurtful and disappointing. But let me say this: I respect everyone’s individual freedom to bring that to my doorstep….”[i] On her personal Facebook page, Goodwin also said, “We understand the history and tradition of the parade, and we want to continue that for years to come.[ii]”
In a strange twist, right after I read this article while sitting on a plane during a long flight, I decided to watch a classic Christmas movie from 1947, Miracle on 34th Street. It’s the day of the Macy’s Department Store Annual Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, and the person playing Santa arrives for work drunk. Doris Walker, the special events director, has to hire someone on the spot and finds an old man who says his name is Kris Kringle. Kringle not only looks the part for the parade but proves to be a sensation when Doris hires him to be the Macy’s Department Store Santa.
The children just love Kris Kringle, who claims to be the real Santa Claus. However, store management is furious after Santa helpfully directs parents to competitor stores when their children ask for toys that Macy’s does not carry. Furious that Macy’s profits might decline because of Santa’s kindness, Macy executives hire the store psychologist to prove that Kris Kringle is not really Santa. When they go to court, however, thousands of pieces of supportive mail arrive from children all over the area, exposing Macy’s self-interest and confirming that Kris Kringle is, indeed, Santa. The true Spirit of Christmas triumphs.
As I ponder the celebration and commercialization of Christmas in a secular world where not everyone is a Christian, I wonder.
- Do you think Jesus would be disappointed if we were intentional about bringing together people of different faith, ethnic, and cultural traditions, whether in a Christmas/Winter parade or a “holiday” concert?
- How might Christmas become an opportunity to reach out to our neighbors and friends who need a smiling face, a listening ear, or a human touch, which are deeply human gestures that all religious faiths hold in common?
- How do we honor the importance of holiday traditions, while at the same time being open to the new thing that God is always doing in our midst?
- How can we participate in each other’s distinctive religious or holiday rituals with a sense of wonder and joy?
- How can we be more sensitive to the blending of the sacred and the secular and the religious and the cultural in a multicultural world?
- Whether we are talking about varied perspectives among different religions or even among United Methodists, is what we agree on more important than what we disagree on?
- What might the ministry of reconciliation that Jesus came to bring look like in your church or community?
The Charleston Christmas Parade was held last Thursday evening with over 190 groups taking part. Last year there were just 77 participating organizations. By all accounts, everyone had a wonderful experience. In October, when Mayor Goodwin announced the name change, she said, “When I was elected to this position, I made a promise, and that promise was to make sure that everyone in this city is included and feels included.”[iii] May the brief controversy over the name of the Charleston Christmas parade lead to mutually enriching dialogue and cooperation between various religious groups in all of our villages, towns, and cities.
[i] The 72-Hour War Over Christmas, Dionne Searcey, The New York Times, November 29, 2019