Earlier this week on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart brought up the all-too-predictable "war on Christmas" that creeps into December news stories, as alarmist commentators bemoan the erosion of Christmas as a Christian holy day and whimper aloud about how the separation of church and state prevents them from the good old-fashioned fun to be had occupying their town square with a nativity scene.
"For years now Christmas has been under attack, defended only by the brave souls at Fox News," Stewart quipped, pointing out the absurdity of the now-annual holiday tradition of conservative Christians proclaiming that our godless, secular culture is trying to erase the holiday. Last month, for example, atheists protested when an Arkansas public school had a field trip to a local church to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, complete with Linus's moving rendition of the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke.
"There's a war on Christmas?" Stewart asked. "Has anyone told Thanksgiving? Cause this year, Black Friday, a.k.a. 'Christmas's opening bell," got moved back a day to Black Thursday -- or as we used to call it, Thanksgiving."
I can understand, to a point, the concern that encroaching consumerism removes Christians' focus from Christ's birth to the many other delightful things about the holiday -- presents, decorations, special foods, and vacation time. But the way for Christians to solve that problem is to deepen their own spiritual understanding of the holiday as a holy day, not to tear their hair out because some secular Americans have rightly protested the requirement that kids in public school sing songs about Jesus' birth.
It's never been constitutional to force religion into the public square (well, at least since the Fourteenth Amendment), and just because more Americans are standing up for their rights in this matter doesn't mean there is a "war on Christmas."
In fact, let's be clear: Christmas has always been a pagan holiday. This came up on my blog last week when a commenter took a very dim view of the celebration's history:
If one does a “google search” on the pagan origins of Christmas (and most other holidays) you would find that “Christmas” has been celebrated for thousands of years and predates Christianity. It was the winter solstice and other pagan beliefs that were “adopted” by the early Catholic church and “sanctified” and renamed and rededicated to (supposedly) honor Christ. Look into it with an open mind and ask yourself if a true Christian can honor God by these things… read 1 Corinthians 10:21-22
Historically, the commenter is correct. Just about every aspect of this holiday has pagan origins. Adam English's new book The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus, which traces the development of legends around Nicholas of Myra (now regarded as jolly old St. Nick), demonstrates many of these juxtapositions. When the Roman Empire was sweeping the world during the lifetime of Nicholas of Myra (ca. 260-335), its leaders had to make decisions about how to deal with the many beloved pagan holidays that people celebrated in the regions where Christianity had recently won allegiance. The final dating of Christmas on December 25 (after earlier celebrations on March 25 and January 6) was selected because it could be observed on the winter solstice, consecrating the pagan worship of the sun god for Jesus while not expecting the people to give up the joy of a festival long-held on that date.
So historically, the comment is accurate, but it is theologically misguided. It seems to presuppose that there should be such a thing as a "pure" Christian holiday, when I can't think of a single example of that in Christian history. Easter, for example, placed the resurrection of Christ smack dab on top of the pagan spring fertility festivals of the ancient world, which is why we still traumatize our children to this day with mixed messages about eggs and giant rabbits.
So let's lighten up about Christmas. People who want to celebrate it as the birth of Christ can always do so in church, at home, or wherever they please so long as they're not imposing religion on others in the public square. And people who want to celebrate it as a pagan winter festival with nog and parties and cards ... well, God bless us, every one.
The blog post is part of a Patheos Book Club Roundtable discussion of Adam English's book The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus. You can read other perspectives on the book here, watch an interview with the author here, or read an excerpt here.
The image of Santa is used with permission of Shutterstock.com. Coca-Cola not included.