The war of Christmas
(The following is a guest post by John Sowalsky, whose script writing has benefited Seneca Creek in recent months. This post a bit longer than usual, but well worth your time. Plus, it’s Thanksgiving. You have a bit more time, right?)
We have once again entered into that season when our nation, and much of the world, is gearing up to celebrate Christmas, the least Christian of all Christian observances by a wide mile. Christians of many stripes are increasingly vocal, year after year, about a perceived “war on Christmas” which, supposedly, reflects an anti-Christian prejudice prevalent in the U.S. Thus, we see affirmations from Christian circles which can often be paraphrased as follows: “I’m going to wish you ‘a merry Christmas’ no matter who or how it offends, so suck it up, heathens!” Christmas, ostensibly a joyful celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace, thus, becomes steeped in thinly-veiled hostility. Which does not seem particularly Christ-like to this writer. If Christ himself were offended by such a slight, whether actual or simply perceived, how would he be likely to respond? With love and humility, and without casting aspersions, implied or otherwise.
But there is an even more important issue to consider when we take up the subject of Christmas: Where did Christmas come from? Because the Bible says nothing — not one word — about commemorating the birth of Christ and, in fact, gives no solid information about when the date of his birth fell. The sad fact is that Christmas is an entirely manufactured, non-Biblical observance which has, in modern times, descended into a veritable orgy of crass consumerism mixed, even more recently, with faith-shaming.
My father’s parents, Jews who came to the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century, did not celebrate their birthdays. Indeed, they weren’t even certain about their dates of birth. This is because in Jewish tradition — the tradition from which Jesus emerged — the date of a person’s birth is not considered nearly as important as the date of their death. I can remember my father observing the Mourner’s Kaddish year after year in honor of his parents, yet when I pressed him on the subject of how old they were when they died, he could only offer a vague estimate. It can be argued that this attitude is reflected in the Bible in that the exact month and day of Jesus’ birth is never alluded to, although the timing of his death, relative to the Passover, is well-established. Whence, then, Christmas?
Although the observance of feasts celebrating the birth of Jesus can be traced back at least as far as 354 AD, there is no Biblical basis for such observances. It seems unlikely that the earliest churches would have recognized such a holiday, but this is conjecture. What is clear is that the traditional date of December 25th roughly coincides with a wide range of pre-Christian pagan practices largely centered around the winter solstice. The logic behind nascent Christianity subsuming various pagan observances is easy to grasp: it afforded newly-converted pagans something familiar to latch on to and, thus, helped to minimize their adjustment to their newly-adopted faith. It was, in short, good PR for the church and an effective marketing tool.
By the end of the Middle Ages, Christmas had been widely adopted throughout the Christian world. Some centuries later, however, in the wake of the Reformation, some Protestant groups (e.g., the Puritans) began to decry Christmas as an invention, dubiously founded upon pagan practices, of the Catholic Church. The celebration of Christmas here in “the Colonies” was spotty, enjoying great popularity in some regions, while being unequivocally forbidden in others. Thus, for example, Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681.
Many of our modern-day Christmas traditions are relatively recent inventions. The concept of Christmas as a personal holiday (i.e., one celebrated with family and friends, as opposed to observed in community and church); the adoption of the Christmas tree as a symbol of the season; the exchanging of gifts (with the concomitant commercialization of the holiday); and many of the most beloved Christmas songs and carols, date back only as far as the 19th century. The contentious term itself — “Merry Christmas!” — seems to have been popularized no earlier than “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, a mere 171 years ago.
In even more recent times, Christmas has become at least partially secularized and has now become both the linchpin and barometer of the U.S. economy. The commercialization of Christmas has gone so far over the top that it is a regular subject of parody, and rightly so. In some circles, we are finally seeing a backlash to this trend, as more and more sincere Christians eschew the material trappings of the season. Instead of being “conformed to the things of this world,” they prefer to spend their time in service to others, and their financial resources in charitable giving.
Yet, still, with each passing year; as the marketing machinery grows increasingly manic; as the traditions become even further removed from their original intents; as gaudiness supplants solemnity; as the “haves” over-consume to the point of gluttony while the “have-nots” slowly waste away on the crumbs that fall from the table; still, we hear the outcry from the Christian left-right-and-center about a purported “war on Christmas.” But before we complain about Christ being taken out of Christmas, perhaps we should consider how he got there to begin with?
(To read more of John’s work, visit his site here.)
P.S. If you missed our Unleash Prayer event on Tuesday, take a few minutes to share your prayer of thanks right now. You may need to use a computer instead of a smart phone for this. And I, for one, am grateful for all who joined us in that expression of gratitude!