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.