The Longstanding American Ambivalence about Christ at Christmas

Originally titled “My ‘War on Christmas’ Snark”

Yesterday I posted The War on Christmas, a snarky account of the commercialization of Christmas and sarcastic commentary on the supposed “war on Christmas” that some Christians fear is being waged in America by anti-Christian forces.  My snark was provoked by my experience of being asked about the “war on Christmas” and the “assault on faith” that is happening these days … all while I was being examined for an upper respiratory infection.  When my shirt is half off and the doctor is using a stethoscope to listen for junk in my lungs, I’m not really eager to tell my doctor that I think her concern is misplaced … at least, not until after she has written my prescription.

It is entirely true that our culture has changed.  Fewer and fewer explicitly Christian celebrations and slogans are shared in the public square.  Taxpayer-funded nativity scenes are less likely to be placed on courthouse or county grounds, and the town Christmas festival might now be called a “winter festival.”  Retailers, recognizing that they can appeal to a larger number of shoppers by focusing on”winter” and “holidays” rather than the explicitly religious “Christmas” have adjusted, perhaps only slightly, their marketing campaigns.

The specifics of Christmas in America are complicated.  The early Puritans did not oldchristmas2celebrate Christmas.  The first Congress famously met on Christmas Day in 1789, and Christmas itself was not declared a federal holiday until 1870.  Much of the way we imagine Christmas in this country is based on early 19th century poetry and stories, particularly the writings of Washington Irving and Clement Clarke More, which represented New World adaptations of Old World Saint Nicholas traditions.  As early as 1841 a Philadelphia merchant had a man dress-up in a Kris Kringle costume and climb the chimney of his store in a publicity effort.

And so by the mid-to-late 19th century Christmas was widely celebrated in America, with a growing emphasis on gift-giving and elves, a large man in a red suit and reindeer.  Washington Irving’s popular writings made celebration of the home and hearth central to our understanding of Christmas.  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, widely read in America by the 1860s, further sentimentalized Christmas as a holiday of kindness and compassion.

This is not all bad, but it ain’t Baby Jesus, either.  The imperative to care for the poor and to share gifts surely has roots in Christian tradition and teachings, and Christians should be glad that the wider culture promotes works of charity at this time of year.  But it is hard to deny that in the 19th century Christmas – the Christ Mass – was branded by a variety of cultural traditions and emphases that had less to do with explicitly religious celebrations of the birth of Christ and more to do with good cheer, generosity, and the comfort of the hearth.

tree-in-town-square-by-steven-dohanosOf course, alongside these widely-held cultural celebrations of Christmas, committed Christians have maintained an emphasis on Christ and the Nativity, even as they have also adopted much of the trappings of the cultural celebration of Christmas.  They have had access to the town square for caroling and religious displays, and have stood by proudly as town fathers read official Christmas proclamations.  For many years explicitly religious commemorations of Christmas received the imprimatur of civic officials, standing alongside the less explicitly religious, cultural celebrations of Christmas.  But it would be a mistake to confuse the proximity of the Baby Jesus to Santa Claus in the town square display as a widespread embrace of the religious nature of the holiday.

Thus cries to “put Christ back into Christmas” ring somewhat hollow, for Christ has had an uncertain relationship with public Christmas celebrations from the very start of our American Christmas traditions.  In the late 20th and early 21st centuries Americans began to make less frequent use of the word “Christmas” in the public square, and instead decided to speak of “holidays” and the “season.”  Perhaps this shift in language is simply a long-awaited acknowledgment that many people in our society do not celebrate Christmas, and that many who do celebrate Christmas do so more as a cultural celebration of generosity and gift-giving than an explicitly religious reflection on the birth of Christ.  Even for we who strive to mark Christmas as a religious holy day, the gift-giving and holiday customs often overshadow the nativity scene that rests on our windowsill.

Christians can and will continue to celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ, with or without stores wishing us a “Merry Christmas,” with or without the town sponsoring a Christmas festival, with or without the courthouse lawn being adorned with a light-up nativity scene.  We certainly don’t need retailers or government officials to help us celebrate the Holy Day of Christ’s birth.  And from what I can tell, they surely aren’t at war with our religious celebrations, either.  No retailer or government official is coming into my house requiring me to wish my daughter “happy holidays” instead of a “merry Christmas.”  Nobody is getting in the way of our church holding services on Christmas Eve.  We even get a federal holiday and a day or two off from work for Christmas, thanks to the government which is supposedly at war with our holiday.  Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths are not so lucky.  No matter what the broader culture does in regards to Christmas, we can continue to celebrate in our homes and in our churches however we see fit.

What is lost somewhat diminished, perhaps, is the widespread use of Christian language (“Christmas”) and expressions (nativity scenes, religous carols) in the public square alongside “Jingle Bells” and inflatable Santas.  But this is not to be mourned.  If the name of Christ is used less frequently in efforts to peddle shoddy merchandise, that’s fine with me.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

5 thoughts on “The Longstanding American Ambivalence about Christ at Christmas

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Chris. While I don’t mind some of the cultural celebrations of Christmas, I find it increasingly difficult to keep the Christian community focused on the meaning of Christ-mass because the cultural voices are so loud and so frequent. For example, we have even had a mall here in the area reminding people to celebrate the “reason for the season,” which, while never explicitly named, is implied as buying merchandise and helping out the economy! And people are buying it!
    In our own family, we have been fighting the battle by trying to teach our children a heightened sense of generosity, especially for those in need. For the most part, they’ve gotten it…I was proud during a children’s conversation in worship when my child was the only one who could answer a question about who Jesus might really want us to give gifts to at this time of the year…but it is an ongoing struggle against the heightened sense of greed that seems to be implicitly picked up. We don’t throw Santa Claus out the window altogether, but the Santa we’re given today looks nothing like Saint Nicholas in his participation in Christmas.
    All that said, these are little ways we celebrate Christmas in our own family as a faith practice, and we teach them in the church. However, rather than “fighting” the cultural Christmas I look for ways to bring our faith practices into the light and hope that people may see that the two celebrations aren’t parallel at all, but are actually increasingly growing further apart. A little light in the darkness, I suppose.

  2. Thanks, Chris, for some sane and eloquent words on this topic. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve linked to this post, and the one previous, on my own blog.
    God bless,

  3. LZ, I appreciate your slightly more clear-minded clarification of yesterday’s rant. However, I remain in opposition to your premise. Any, I repeat, any mustard seed that gets any, I repeat, any person even momentarily thinking about the right and true reason for celebrating Christmas is enough of an opportunity for God to work (not that He needs us anyway, but hey, we’re here to help, right?) Paul’s words come to mind, from his first letter to the church of Corinth and also his letter to the church of Rome: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” – 1 Corinthians 3:6-7 … and “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” – Romans 8:28. So let’s agree to love God above all and simply stop analyzing the historical American (and subsequent global) secularization of the only Messiah’s birth. Additionally, let us pray that God uses every and all secular or sacred impression of Christmas as a holy seed or sprinkle of Living Water to work His will in just one life today – and the next day – and every day. There’s a great big garden out there and each of us has been blessed with a responsibility to tend to it in our own way. Lights, parades and all … it belongs to God anyway! Blessed Advent and Merry Christmas!

  4. I have published comprehensive proof that the symbology of these canons is based on advanced science and natural observations that completely expose pivotal ancient lies. The best way to win the war on Christmas is to finally prove the truth and force religious leaders to cease and desist from their lies and exploitation. Here’s my latest press release on the topic.
    Seven Star Hand Unveils Death Blow in War on Christmas
    Telling lies about me for two millennia has dire consequences, and now I intend to collect on what is due.
    Here is Wisdom…

  5. I agree that mustard seeds that get people to consider God are good.
    But at the same time, couching Christmas in terms of a war (which I hear quite a bit of among people in our congregation) doesn’t get people thinking about who God is. It gets people instead thinking about intolerance and arrogance. I know many people who would be fine with Christians celebrating the holiday as they see fit, except that those same Christians are pushing them to behave or think or believe a certain way, and that’s what they push back against.
    Jesus didn’t win people over by fighting cultural wars with them. He reasoned with them. He told them stories. He ate and drank with them. He planted mustard seeds. He didn’t use a BB gun and shoot them at people.

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