The War on Christmas
About this time of year I begin to become aware that somewhere just outside my immediate church context there are conservative Christians getting very worked up (often publicly on Fox News) about the war on Christmas. Frankly, the war on Christmas is pretty boring stuff. I grew up assuming that people wished you “Happy holidays” because 90% of them weren’t going to see you until New Year’s had passed as well and they didn’t want to shortchange you a holiday. However there are some aspects of the holiday war that are interesting.
First let’s be clear: there is a war on Christmas. Two of them, in fact. The first (and by far the most dangerous) is the war against the Christian celebration of Christ’s birth. This war is conducted by burying all Christian celebration in a wave of presents that short-circuit our minds, bind us up with worry and guilt (who did I forget to get presents for?) and cause us to relegate the Christian celebration to a small corner of Christmas Eve. There are effectively two holidays that happen on Christmas, a Christian one and a secular one. There are even secular Christmas songs (i.e., Christmas songs that have no religious content whatsoever and are about the secular elements of Christmas). The secular holiday is growing at the expense of the Christian one. Instead of waiting through Advent for the day to dawn upon us we wait through the shopping season for the time when we will receive instead of stressfully buy. Unfortunately, since secular Christmas is called Christmas a fair number of cultural-war Christians have mistakenly assumed that there is only one Christmas and failed to realize the threat from secular Christmas.
The second war on Christmas is the culture-warrior’s war on Christmas, the gradual unacceptance of the assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas and the more distinct unwillingness to use Christian language about Christmas (which is ironically part of the first war as well). This second war begs a relatively straightforward question: what other holidays are there wars upon? I’ve never heard of a war on Eid, Chanukah, or New Year’s. One interpretation is that this is because some unholy cabal of Muslims, Jews, and atheists are plotting against Christmas in their secret bunkers under the UN. A saner interpretation would note that there also isn’t a war against Easter (the high holy day of Christianity), Pentecost, or any of the other varied Christian holidays marked by various churches. The war on Christmas is only a war on Christmas. Why?
One simple explanation is that Christmas is the biggest target around. Easter probably comes second but Easter is a tiny event in comparison to Christmas – instead of a whole panoply of decorations, a huge burst of shopping, public nativities, and a host of songs there’s a rabbit, some candy, and a church service that occurs on Sunday anyway. If you pull out all the Easter stops the best you can do is a tacky inflatable rabbit, some plastic eggs, and a sugar coma. If you try to get super-religious about Easter you can manage to go to both the sunrise service AND the regular service (or you can observe Lent but this is generally not very noticeably to others).
Christmas is also the biggest target around because it’s Christian. Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist holidays are all the standard somewhere else in the world but the default holidays of the West are Christian. Schools have Christmas breaks and often Easter breaks as well but no Yom Kippur break. The interesting connection between the two wars on Christmas starts here: the popularity and then decline of Christianity in the West created both wars. The popularity of Christianity in the West cemented its holidays in our calendars so well that people who do not celebrate Christmas frequently find themselves adding gifts to a nearby holiday. The decline of Christianity created secular versions of the major holidays – a secular Christmas and a rabbit and candy-themed Easter. Because these secular versions of the holidays were not explicitly Christian they remained in the public square much longer than their explicitly-Christian counterparts. When the tides of multiculturalism grew strong enough to become uncomfortable with even secular derivatives of holidays that not everyone celebrates the second war on Christmas began.
This is where the practical bit begins. The second war on Christmas, the culture-warrior’s war, is chronologically second. By the time culture begins to avoid saying “Merry Christmas” to avoid offending people the holiday has already spawned a secular counterpart. A culture that was so Christian as to have no secular Christmas but only a widespread Christian Christmas would be a culture in which there would be no social traction for avoiding mentions of Christmas. (Or, if there was social traction, it would be from culturally-dominant Christians magnanimously granting it to the minority and not an outside pressure pushing on a weakening Christianity.) The phenomenon that spawns a culture-war on Christmas is the presence of a sort of religious holiday with a large public presence and that large public presence is the secular side of Christmas. It’s not the Christmas Eve services that spark secular ire.
Given this I think there’s very little point fighting the culture-war on Christmas. The fact that we have a culture-war on Christmas means that the first and more important war has basically been lost. Let the Christmas trees, Santas, and other trappings of secular Christmas get repackaged as generically “holiday” – they really are in some sense. What Christians need to defend is not the tendency of mall greeters to specify Christmas in their greetings but an authentically-Christian Christmas within the community of believers.
There are two reasons to avoid holding on to a public Christmas. The first is that wielding power against the irreligious to force observance is a problematic tactic. Charlemagne’s “convert or die” has been widely renounced in the West (and may have been more the solution of Charlemagne the warlord than Charlemagne’s clergy anyway) but the principle is still often embraced in a less-bloody fashion: political power compels you to act like you belong to our religion. Really it’s the principle that is the issue. If threatening people with death really did produce genuine conversions and Christian growth it would actually be fairly hard for most evangelicals to argue with. (I would argue against it anyway on the grounds that it does not fit with the character of Jesus but I would say that this is also why it does not work – the methodology is alien to God’s nature.) The issue is that it produces neither – it produces surface conversions and resentment. It also has a tendency to produce whitewashing of pre-existing ideas to make them fit the new religious mold. This is the second reason to avoid fighting for public Christmas: ultimately it will end of legitimatizing the public aspects of Christmas (the tree, Santa, the gifts, the lights) as part of the Christian holiday. They aren’t.
The (perhaps unfortunate) fact is that a lot of the culture-war is about Christian power receding from a high in the 1950s (yes, you read that right – 1950 saw a higher percentage of Americans go to church than any previous decade in United States history). The marks of that cultural influence still lie about on the landscape but in reworked, de-Christianized, and often stale or even mean-spirited forms. While it is a hard adjustment for people born at the height of Christian power to abandon these shells it is a necessary thing. They have no life left in them. It is time to think of Christians as a cultural minority with distinct practices and lifestyles separate from that of our culture and evangelize for our practices by evangelizing for our religion rather than evangelizing for our religion by forcing our distinctive practices on the non-religious.