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.

The War on Christmas

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.

Imagine that.

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.