A new study finds that 40% of Americans believe there is a “war on Christmas”, specifically that secular, pluralistic, woke, and/or other liberal forces are stealing Christmas from us (news story here). But this line of thinking is simply another avenue of Christian Nationalism that has seeped into the collective conscious of political conservatives. Christmas has been celebrated as a national holiday since Ulysses Grant recognized it in 1870 (here). Throughout the 20th century the National holiday of “Christmas” grew and as the cultural celebration grew so did the secularization. But this is not a war on Christmas it is a natural outcome of the fact that in America over half of the people who celebrate Christmas are not regular church attenders. Most Americans have little to no familiarity with Jesus and so either ignorant of how to celebrate him or uncomfortable with acknowledging Jesus. This ignorance or discomfort has led people to substitute a wide range of meanings into their celebrations of Christmas- the stories of Santa, Rudolf the reindeer, Frosty the snowman, elf on a shelf, etc. etc.. But this is not a recent phenomenon; while making A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965, Charles Schulz had to fight to keep Linus’ reading of Luke 2 and “the true meaning of Christmas” in the script (here). In the 1960’s it was already controversial to have Jesus in a Christmas special, and I bet if Schulz would have lost the argument you would still watch the special and enjoy it not thinking anything was wrong. The truth is there is not a “war on Christmas” there are two separate holidays the religious and the cultural and the concept of a “war on Christmas” is simply a veneer used by the political right to keep people from recognizing this reality.
Leading conservatives like Dennis Prager find commercialism an essential part of Christmas, he laments that people want to make the holiday religious (here). For him all economic growth is a moral good and therefore Christians making Christmas a religious holiday is evil. This is the same Prager who will decry the left’s destruction of Christmas because they want to say, “Happy Holidays!” or take Nativity scenes out of public squares (here). What he is doing is articulating a belief that there is only one holiday called Christmas and it is to be celebrated with an abundance of spending because his priority is the economy. Further, we must recognize that there is a cultural tie to the holiday of our European ancestors, which includes religious overtones. This is, in his understanding, our historical heritage, conveniently forgetting that the first Congress was in session December 25, 1789 (obviously not celebrating Christmas). Prager’s concept of Christmas is simply the 1950’s-1960’s version, a Christmas built on a loosely shared national culture which celebrated with toys and games delivered by Santa and Dean Martin singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside”- watch A Christmas Story and look carefully at how Christmas is depicted. The simple fact is that as American culture continues celebrate the National Holiday of Christmas more customs and content around the holiday will evolve and make the Nativity of Jesus less important in the overarching narrative. This is not a “war on Christmas” it is the evolution of the National Holiday which was never really about Jesus but was simply a binding agent for the national culture. Why do people like Prager fight so hard to keep this “war on Christmas” theory going, because it gives Christians a justification to continue the political alliance with big business economics, the veneer of Christianity on Christmas allows them to continue to sell the commercialization of Christmas. He says it, he does not want Christians to take religion too seriously when it comes to celebrating Christmas.
Now consider the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke. Prager says gift giving (extravagant gift giving is better) is part of Christmas; the justification for this is the Magi bringing Jesus gifts in Matthew 2:11. Laying aside the theological significance of these gifts (what each gift says about who Jesus is), the example shown here is not giving gifts to loved ones. If anything, the example of gift giving to be modeled is wealthy individuals giving extravagantly to the poor and needy, or else the wealthy surrendering their treasures to God to be used to transform the world. This is a far cry from Prager’s call for the economic boom of Christmas. The Magi are examples of the elite, those who rub shoulders with the kings, bringing wealth to the lowly servant of God and renouncing the government who wants to maintain the status quo. Herod is not simply one bad king, he represents people in a position of power, the Wise Men renounce him to give complete allegiance to Jesus. Move on to the story in Luke 1 & 2. Consider Mary’s song in Luke 1, the entire hymn is about God overthrowing unjust human governments to elevate the poor and marginalized. This theme is continued in Luke 2, where a contrast is developed between the government of this world (verses 1-3) which levy harsh taxes, and God’s anointed king being born (verses 10-11)- the words good news, messiah, & city of David are all political and mean a new ruler is on the scene. We experience “great joy” because Caesar is no longer in charge, rather God’s chosen king reigns, and in these passages Caesar is the stand-in for all human government. At some level the reality of the Bible’s message confronts and undermines any attempt to celebrate Christmas as a National Holiday. Reading Matthew and Luke’s accounts forces us to criticize our civil government, they compel us to see our own shortcomings and work to fix our society’s shortcomings. A society bent on celebrating Christmas as a National Holiday rightly distances itself from such ideas.
This is precisely THE threat to Christian Nationalism, the recognition that our government was never ruling on Jesus’ behalf. Conservatives like Prager want to convince people that our government and culture was Christian and that this heritage is being stripped away, but the reality is that American culture as a whole only ever possessed the veneer of Christianity, a veneer created by appropriating Christian ideas like celebrating Christmas. I do not doubt President Grant’s sincerity as a Christian, but the honest truth is that he probably was as much indebted to military custom as religious fervor when he made Christmas a national holiday. I do not want to criticize President Grant because I am not inherently opposed to Christmas as a National Holiday, but we must recognize it as a reflection of American culture not as the Christian holiday which is a reflection of Jesus. There was never a time when this nation had a Christian conscious, never a time when our government desperately tried to follow Jesus’ example. Rather, I like the celebration of the National Holiday of Christmas because it reminds me just how far from the reality we are as a culture. The fact that many Christians cannot see the distinction between the two holidays points to the reality that we need to take a long look at which holiday we celebrate. There is an American myth about Christmas, and come Christmastime the myth is pushed that at one time this was a Christian nation and those values are going by the wayside, therefore it is our patriotic duty to celebrate Christmas in the good old American tradition. Conveniently this tradition is buying lots of presents, spending money on decorating, & consuming commercialized media. But if we say that celebrating Christmas is about simplicity, caring for the poor and needy, going to church, or loving family and friends (without gifts) then we are equally un-American and are allowing the Left to win. The concept of a “war on Christmas” is simply bait to keep Christians in a particular political camp; there is no such war.
Why do I say there is no such war? Because I continue to see Christmas celebrated with passion by the Church. If I say, “Happy Holidays!” to someone on the street it is because I do not know whether that person celebrates the Christian Christmas; that individual may celebrate any number of holidays including the secular Christmas and I do not want to create confusion or hard feelings. But in the church I say, “Merry Christmas!” because there I know we are celebrating Jesus’ birth without the commercial trappings of modern culture. The only person who can strip Christ out of your Christmas is you, not the larger culture, not the Left, not Atheists, not practitioners of other religions. American Christians need to recognize that when we and our congregations celebrate Christmas we are recognizing the power of Jesus’ birth in changing this world, and when the larger society celebrates “Christmas” they are celebrating Santa Claus bringing economic prosperity into the world. These are different concepts and though they might have some overlapping traditions and history, they are in fact different holidays which in many ways are mutually exclusive. My recommendation is to pick which holiday you want to celebrate and celebrate with gusto, but do not get confused about which holiday it is you are celebrating, that can only end badly.