In Praise of a Secular Christmas
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
December 20, 2010
This piece originally appeared in Religion Dispatches.
In order to have something to complain about during a season that most people use for generosity and love, some of my fellow Christians are perpetuating the idea that the month before Christmas Day has historically been a sacred, holy time dedicated to celebrating the birth of Jesus. This claim has no basis in Christian tradition or history, but the minor inconveniences of facts and historical perspective has not stopped them from fabricating a myth about the Christian origins of this season.
The establishment of this myth is essential to their goal of perpetuating a tale of victimization. In the tragic story as some Christians tell it, evil forces of secularism are persecuting faithful believers in a “War on Christmas” designed to draw our attention away from the stable-born child who, we are told, is the “reason for the season.” These claims of religious persecution are all-the-more bizarre considering the fact that seventy-six percent of Americans self-identify as Christians. It takes a real talent for delusional rhetoric to portray a group that makes up three-fourths of the country as a threatened minority.
Their real complaint, however, is not about holiday observances. As Ross Douthat recently noted in The New York Times, this is a “Tough Season for Believers.” While Christianity may continue to enjoy a majority in the U.S., the attitudes and prejudices that some consider inseparable from the tradition are on the wane. Social conservatives and far-right evangelicals are struggling with their increasing irrelevance in twenty-first century America, and the prominence of both pluralistic observances and secular traditions this time of year draw particular attention to that reality.
Unfortunately for those on the losing side of this culture war, the history of the “Christmas Season” does not make a strong case for their complaints. The argument from the conservative evangelicals is simple: all of the positive things we associate with this time of year have their origins in traditional, Christian observances of the birth of Christ held during the month leading up to December 25. This claims has several flaws, most notably the fact that Christians do not celebrate the birth of Jesus at this time of year, and that our “Christmas” traditions far predate Christianity.
The first of these points is perhaps the most important. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas day is not, in fact, the “Christmas Season.” It has become the Christmas Shopping Season, but that is a very different animal. Identifying this time of year with Christmas has nothing to do with Christianity, Jesus, the Nativity or anything theological. Instead, advertisers and shopkeepers refer to this time of year as “Christmas” to use the theme as an emotional lure to persuade people to buy more things they do not need. Even Christian fundamentalists realize this. Their main complaints in “defense of Christmas” are about the failure of companies to refer to Jesus’ birth in their advertising. Apparently these defenders of Christmas do not see the irony in pushing for more commercial uses of the image of the man who told a wealthy questioner that the way to salvation is giving away all your possessions to the poor.
Irony is not all they are ignoring. In creating this myth that this time of year is intended to commemorate Jesus’ birth, radical conservatives are choosing to draw attention away from the actual theological theme for this time of year. For Christians, this is the season of Advent – a time when anticipating the celebration of Jesus’ first arrival causes us to focus on the doctrine of his Second Coming. On the night of December 24 we will focus on the Nativity; but we use the time in the four weeks prior to look toward the distant future and the end of time. For this reason, the texts read in Christian churches this time of year are about judgment and divine anger. They mention separating wheat from chaff, and talk about the axe that rests at the root of the tree. In all of these passages, those who are found wanting perish – usually quite painfully. A hungover teenager afraid their parents will come home early understands more about the Christian meaning of this season than an indignant suburbanite chewing out a retail clerk for a well-intended wish of “Happy Holidays.”
For Christians, Advent is a time of expectation, of hope tinged with fear and self-evaluation. The misguided campaign to relocate the Nativity into the retail Christmas shopping season completely ignores this traditional, Christian understanding of the season.
Of course, long before those Christian traditions developed, this was already a special time of year. People have always gathered together at the time when the nights were at their longest and the weather its most bitter. Feasting, small gifts of affection, fires and candles, evergreen trees, and all the other hallmarks of “Christmas” find their origins in much older traditions around observance of the winter solstice. If we want to dig back for the “reason” for this season of decorations, celebration, and goodwill, we find that Jesus has nothing to do with it. When Christianity rose to prominence in Western Europe, people took their existing festal activities and whitewashed them with a veneer of the gospel. The origins of those traditions, however, are no more Christian than those of Easter eggs or the Easter Bunny. This was a time of goodwill and generosity long before anyone heard of a baby born in a stable.
In fact, the most familiar and heartwarming stories we associate with this time of year often have a negligible theological component to them. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – which almost singlehandedly brought about the modern observance of the holiday – has nothing to do with Jesus. Scrooge is not redeemed by the gospel; he is redeemed by his realization that his greed has cost him more than he could ever measure in gold. Likewise, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is not the story of divine incarnation. It is a celebration of the quiet heroism of those who choose love of their neighbor over love for themselves. As with the Christmas traditions themselves, these and other stories of this holiday season – from Miracle on 34th Street to Polar Express – are reminders that this is the time of year when we open our homes and our wallets to care for friends, family, and strangers alike – whether or not we (or they) are Christians.
This seems obvious, but apparently it bears repeating: a season of welcome and sharing, regardless of the religious beliefs of those who observe it, is a good thing. This is why it seems nonsensical that some pugnacious conservatives want to insist that those around them ignore the long history of this season and portray it as explicitly and exclusively Christian. It is not, and should not be. Just as Christians need the imperatives of Advent and the joy of Christmastide, all of us need a season of goodwill. Long before the time of Christ, friends and families gathered to ward off the cold with food, fire, and fellowship.
We need those gifts even more today. We should commend any attempt that others make to express those positive family values in the most inclusive way possible. If “Happy Holidays” helps draw more people into the beautiful, secular meaning of this season – wonderful! It never was a Christian season in the first place. Belligerently claiming that we are in “Christmas time” distracts from Advent and undercuts the meaning of the actual Christmas season. Besides, Christians have enough opportunities to separate ourselves and be exclusive. We should let this season be what it has been since our ancestors first erected Stonehenge – a time when everyone was invited in from the chill of winter for the warm gifts of hospitality and kindness.
Noted theologian Kermit the Frog expressed this very sentiment (using the words of Dan Wheetman):
I don’t know if you believe in Christmas
Or if you have presents underneath the Christmas tree,
But if you believe in love,
That will be more than enough
For you to come and celebrate with me.