The rich inner experience of Christmas is coated with a sweet nutty blend of pop culture. Features for the holiday range from angels to elves, from wise men to talking snowmen, from Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to Rudolph, Prancer, and Vixen. Believers bask in the starry wonderment of Christ’s rustic birth while decking the night with merriments as bright as Las Vegas.

Howdy Babe!

Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with re-creating the first nativity scene. A deep chord is struck in me by that sacred gathering of angels, humans, and animals, all focused on the holy infant. This reverses the order of imperial power that’s exerted downward by rulers over men, women, and children. On one silent night, the most vulnerable becomes the most venerable.

Christmas has changed since then.

To fully convey our cultural progress, we need to cast the scene with pop media personalities. Justin Bieber would make the perfect angel. The shepherds should all be star athletes and country music celebrities. Candidates for the magi include Deepak Chopra, Spike Lee, and Johnny Depp (he could don a Persian version of his pirate outfit). The Virgin Mary would definitely be played by Bristol Palin. For a touch of ethnic authenticity, my pick for Joseph would be Eric Cantor, the new House Majority Leader and sole Jewish Republican in Congress. The animals would be animated by Pixar.

And no, we haven’t forgotten. The cutest baby Jesus would be chosen by way of a contest among parents on American Idol. The whole thing could be done as a reality TV fundraiser for a popular national cause, like building more freeways or shipping more weapons to Israel.

Something would still be missing, though. We’d need an entertainer to play Santa Claus. Glenn Beck could do the trick for many true believers, but he wouldn’t pass muster with liberals. If Dean Martin were alive he could wear the red suit, crooning to the masses while standing beside the manger.

Are we having fun yet?

Many who celebrate this season mourn the merger of the sacred and profane, just as politicians pause at opportune times to lament deficit spending. Like Charlie Brown, we’re prone to bemoan the commercialization of Christmas. Yet there have been bread and circuses surrounding the solstice since the time of the Roman Empire. And the seasonal Pax Romana is still accompanied by top-down oppression.

Do the 80% of Americans who claim to be Christians really care? Sure, our ranks include folks who get riled up when retailers sport X-Mass signs or instruct cashiers to say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” But do we order our lives and economy so as to care for the least among us?

Fox News forbid. Judging from our priorities, it looks like Americans have more in common with Lucy than Charlie Brown.

“Incidentally,” she says to Charlie in the cartoon holiday classic, “I know how you feel about this Christmas business, getting depressed and all that. I never get what I really want. I always get a lot of stupid toys, or a bicycle, or clothes, or something like that.”

“What is it you want?” asks our favorite blockhead.

“Real estate,” she replies.

Ever eager to capitalize on our heart’s desires, Uncle Sam has played Santa to big business. Pumped up with government subsidies, the real estate market ballooned with risky speculation. Then, when the economy crashed, President Bush pushed legislators to approve a huge bailout for the largest speculators.

President Obama recently pushed Congress to pass a deficit-diving tax deal that further enshrines our top-down priorities. A majority of legislators marched in lockstep, even though it potentially sets the stage for draconian cuts in public services.

Behold the flow of power in the new Roman Empire — from Wall Street to Washington down to the least privileged child. Is it Mammon we serve with our collective actions as we pledge allegiance to Jesus? Is our adoration of the holy babe an affirmation that God dwells among us, or a pageantry-clad prelude to child sacrifice?

So the story unfolds according to a new world order. It’s cold beyond the plush warm digs of central casting; yet the in-crowd has no room for little people. Unless, of course, they offer a captive market or provide cheap labor making toys.

Saint Francis would have us harken to a different story.

Watt Childress

Watt Childress