Taking the Christ Back Out of Christmas: Secularizing the Season

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.

Noted theologian Kermit the Frog (speaking the words of Dan Wheetman)

In order, apparently, to have something to complain about during a season that most Americans associate with generosity and love, some of my fellow Christians are perpetuating the idea that the month leading up to Christmas has historically been a sacred time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. That this claim has no basis in Christian tradition or history hasn’t stopped them from fabricating a myth about the season’s Christian origins.

If your goal is to perpetuate a tale of victimization, however, this myth is essential. And it goes something like this: the 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.” Claims of religious persecution are all the more bizarre given that seventy-six percent of Americans self-identify as Christians. It takes a real talent for deceptive rhetoric to portray a group that makes up three-fourths of the country as a threatened minority.

The 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 battle in the culture war, the history of the “Christmas Season” does not make a strong case in their favor. The argument from 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 25th. This claim 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 pre-date Christianity quite a bit.

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 use the “Christmas Season” as an emotional lure to persuade people to buy more things they don’t really need. Even Christian fundamentalists realize this.

Yet the main complaints in “defense of Christmas” are about the failure of companies to refer directly and exclusively 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 isnt all that’s being ignored. In creating the myth that it’s about Jesus’ birth, Christian conservatives draw attention away from the season’s actual theological theme, namely that 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 24th 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, separating wheat from chaff, or 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 the traditional, Christian understanding of it.

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 in observance of the winter solstice.

If we really want to know the “reason for the season” of decorations, celebration, and goodwill, we’ll 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 little or no 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 isn’t redeemed by the Gospel, but by the realization that his greed has cost him more than he could ever measure in gold.

Likewise, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t the story of divine incarnation, it’s 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—from Miracle on 34th Street to The 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, we all 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.

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.