For many years, there have been occasional cries that a “War on Christmas” is being waged. In the early 2000’s, conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly began using the term frequently, resulting in it becoming a battle cry for many Christians that feel as if various forces are aligning to eliminate Christmas, or to rob it of all religious connections. Is this a reasonable fear? I am not religious, and decided to look at this “war” from as unbiased a perspective as possible.
In order to decide whether Christmas is under some form of attack from various anti-Christian forces, it is important to understand a bit about the history of how Christmas has been celebrated, and especially how it has been celebrated in predominantly Christian western countries. After all, modern Americans, even those that are upset because they sense that something essential to the holiday is being stolen from them, have been raised in a fairly young country. Many of our Christmas traditions are also relatively young, or borrowed from much earlier customs.
To begin with, many modern Christmas traditions have pre-Christian origins. Caroling, Christmas trees, Yule logs, and Santa Claus himself have nothing to do with Christianity or the birth of Jesus. These traditions have been co-opted into Christmas from much older Northern European pagan rituals, mostly centered around their observance of Winter Solstice. I have even heard that Santa Claus is a reinvention of Thor, although I have not been able to verify that. The point remains that much of the traditions associated with Christmas have nothing to do with Christianity, and it is no surprise that non-believers might still observe some of those traditions in a purely secular manner. They’re fun, and tap into our collective need to cheer ourselves during the bleak winter months.
So how did Christians observe the holiday in the past? Well, up until the Victorian era, Christmas was an almost totally religious holiday for most Christians, although it was secondary to Easter and other holidays. During those times, the remnants of pagan beliefs that had made it into Christmas were very controversial, with fun-loving groups like the Puritans completely rejecting Christmas as a pagan holiday. To this day, certain Christian sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t observe Christmas.
Christmas remained a troubled holiday for years. At one point, it was suppressed by Christian churches, because it had devolved into a tradition of rowdy men roaming the streets, demanding alcohol door to door, and generally causing mayhem. In this light, it’s fair to ask, if there is a “War on Christmas,” hasn’t it always existed?
The Christmas that most Americans know is a relatively recent thing. Much of how we observe the holiday has been shaped by depictions in books and movies more than any solid line of ancient Christian rituals, because those just don’t really exist in the case of Christmas.
To be fair, there are some individuals and groups that have criticized the open celebration of Christmas in this country, generally on the grounds that there is a separation of church and state, and that it’s inappropriate to openly celebrate the religious aspects of Christmas in places such as schools or government offices. These outcries are not huge in number, despite getting a lot of media coverage when they occur. If they happened often in a country with as huge a population as the USA, they would be in the news constantly, and they just aren’t.
A lot of conservative commentators that push this “War on Christmas,” and the people that see it as a threat, seem to believe that there is a sinister plot at work, driven by a huge number of atheists and people from non-Christian religious groups, and from what I can tell, this is just not the case.
Yes, there are a few goofy atheists that are so furious at Christianity that they actively try to stop any religious display, and some of them take it to a point that’s ridiculous, like attempting to stop the display of Christmas trees in public. Which is again, an extant pagan tradition. Those people should probably be called out as the joyless buzz-kills they are, just as public school teachers that tell their young students the truth about Santa Claus should earn our collective derision.
But, outside of a small number of activist types, I have never seen any examples of people from other major religions trying to stamp out Christmas. If anything, they’ve shown great restraint and tolerance over the years.
One of the most often cited bits of “evidence” that this “War” is going on are incidences of retailers and governmental agencies beginning to use terms like “Happy Holidays” rather than the once more common “Merry Christmas.” Not a year goes by without this injustice against Christmas and Christians getting attention. But, let’s look at that a little closer. Yes, there have been cases of official state agencies and public schools switching to a more general and secular observance of Christmas. Is that an example of some plot against the Christian holiday, or a reflection that, while the USA is still a majority Christian nation (if we go by percentage of the faithful claiming to be Christians), it is increasingly a diverse nation in regards to religious belief? The bureaucrats that tend to make up the administration of public schools, or run government agencies, usually are going to side with caution, and don’t want to court controversy. If angry Christians are going to complain that “Happy Holidays” is not adequate enough of an observation of Christmas, then they need to understand that overtly religious symbols are not considered appropriate for promotion in certain shared spaces, and it’s not a snub against Christianity unless they are prepared to tolerate the observance of Muslim or Jewish religious rituals in those same places. Heck, let’s bring back some serious Winter Solstice rituals and have them displayed in the town square!
I humbly suggest a burning inverted pentagram to be displayed at every courthouse in the country.
That’s the thing. America is no longer an almost exclusively Christian country, and hasn’t been for quite some time. I know plenty of non-believers, or people with very non-traditional spiritual beliefs that still observe some Christmas traditions. I know Satanists that have Christmas trees. What this illustrates is that Christmas itself has NEVER been an exclusively Christian holiday in this country. Its traditions are borrowed from other, older belief systems, and really show a human need to brighten the winter through celebration than some observance of Christ’s birthday, at least for many people.
As for retailers that have switched to the more generic but inclusive “Happy Holidays” greeting – that too is an acknowledgement that many potential customers aren’t Christians, and that more than one faith celebrates some version of the Winter holiday during the final months of the year. Retailers care about making money, which they perceive is easier by not insulting potential customers by celebrating one holiday while appearing to ignore others.
In many cases, where enough Christians expressed outrage at a retailer’s shift from marketing a specifically Christmas holiday to a more general holiday season, those retailers went back to the Christmas marketing. This illustrates that there is not exactly a “War” against Christmas going on, but that governmental agencies and retailers are scrambling to adapt to our evolving culture.
If there is a war that Christianity, and not Christmas itself, is enduring, it’s a more diversifying cultural landscape, and honestly that’s a problem that modern Christians are responsible for. Change is inevitable, but clearly the Christian “brand” is losing market share over time. There a significant percentage of Americans rejecting Christianity for other faiths, or no faith at all, and while most of them are not specifically antagonistic towards Christianity or Christmas, it is no longer the only game in town, and they shouldn’t be completely ignored.
So a war against Christmas? It’s more accurate to say that Christmas has almost always been a controversial holiday within Christianity itself, and that the “Classic Christmas” traditions most Americans have grown up with are actually a mishmash of both Christian religious observances, older pagan rituals, and invention from literature and film sources. That vision of a classic American Christmas is a fairly new idea. The fact that people of all faiths and no faith have always found a way to celebrate the winter months, and that our own traditions are changing, should not be a surprise to anyone.
What’s also not surprising is that commentators like Bill O’Reilly have a vested interest in creating a “War against Christians” where there really isn’t one. If Christians are worried that Christmas is becoming a secular and generic holiday, without their religious values being represented, then they should reflect that even the Puritans agreed with them.
If American Christians are afraid of a changing cultural landscape that’s not so narrowly focused on preserving their borrowed and made up Yule traditions, then it’s up to them to market their brand more effectively, and increase their numbers.
In the meantime, I will be lobbying for that burning upside down pentagram, and happily burning my Baal log.