For many years Christians have waged a persistent and spirited war on Christmas. They have struggled, with significant success, to transform a holy day for people of faith into a secular holiday for all citizens of our nation to observe. However, there are signs that the Christians are in retreat, recognizing that their efforts to establish Christmas as a universal holiday observed by all Americans have been unsuccessful.
These Christians have willingly presided over the transformation of the sacred celebration of their Lord’s birth into a festival of free-market consumerism. By joining their faith with consumerist impulses and market forces, they sought to place Christ at the center of the American experience. It was seen as a victory for the faith that retailers would look forward to Christmas and promote Christmas shopping to make or break their year, making Christmas the most important part of their business cycle – and thus, of the American economy. No longer would Christmas be just a holy day for the faithful to celebrate in homes and in churches, but now it would be promoted for weeks and months on Main Street and in shopping malls, on the radio and the television, spreading the word about Christmas sales and gift ideas.
Even though the Gospel of Luke reports that Jesus brings good news to the poor and sends the rich away empty, to fully participate in Christmas America-style, an upper-middle class income or higher is really necessary, because Christmas in America is about the gifts. (Frankincense, gold and myrrh didn’t come cheap, bucko.) And so Christians established Christmas as a holiday that can truly be shared in its ideal form only by those who are well-off, further thrusting Christ into the center of the American yearning for wealth and material goods. Associating Christmas with the spending of money was a particular coup d’etat since Christians had already succeeded in the unlikely feat of making millions believe that wealth itself is a sign of God’s blessing on the faithful.
Despite all these historical successes at inserting the Baby Jesus into the center of America’s consumerist culture – and thus at the heart of American life – these days many Christians note with great lament that America’s annual mid-winter gift-giving ritual increasingly has little to do with the Baby Jesus. Fewer and fewer stores display traditional Christmas scenes in their Main Street windows, angering many Christians that images of their Lord and Savior are no longer used as marketing gimmicks to get people to buy useless junk made with child labor in China. So too with signs and jingles. “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” takes Christ right out of the center of this consumerist blitz, where so many Christians think He belongs.
Christians shouldn’t be too sullen, however. They can still look at the various successes they have had at establishing Christmas as a centerpiece to American culture:
- Christmas is a national holiday, which usually involves several pretty good basketball games on TV.
- There is no junk mail on Christmas, because there is no mail delivery at all on that day!
- You can park at a parking meter on Christmas and not have to insert a quarter.
- For six weeks the radio won’t stop playing that [insert expletive] Christmas music.
- Very few businesses are open on Christmas, making that day particularly stink for non-Christians and Christians alike who really need to get a gallon of milk or some diapers at the store.
- Most people still call that pagan-derived tradition of killing a tree, putting it up in your house, and decorating it with plastic balls a “Christmas” tree.
- Christmas shops, selling all kinds of red and green and snow-covered junkola, are a growing segment of the retail market.
- Schools are closed for a week or more around Christmas, even if they don’t use that word much any longer.
Weary from generations of battle, fewer Christians wage war on Christmas these days, though skirmishes do break out from time to time, most notably around what to call the dead evergreen tree in the town square, or what songs public school kids can sing at a taxpayer-funded concert. Many are retreating from this war, no longer insisting that Big Box Retailer send Christmas Greetings to shoppers. Instead, these Christians are increasingly choosing to celebrate the birth of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ at home and in their churches.
UPDATE: I posted a follow-up, My “War on Christmas” Snark, offering a brief look at the origins of Christmas in America, and highlighting the ambiguity we’ve had about Christ and Christmas over the years.