In the fourth century A.D., the Catholic church made a big mistake. Acceding to the popular tradition that Jesus Christ had been born on December 25 and wishing to keep Christians from participating in the infamous orgies of the year-end pagan festival of Saturnalia, the Church established December 25 as the feast of the birth of Christ. Thus, for seventeen centuries, Christmas and Saturnalia have competed for the attention of the public. By now, I think we must admit that Saturnalia has won and that Christmas has been thoroughly de-Christianized.
During its long and varied history, Christmas has seldom been entirely free of Saturnalian contamination. As its celebration rose to prominence in the Middle Ages, the nativity scene was flanked with older pagan symbols, such as decorated trees and Yule logs, and religious adoration was admixed with feasting and revelry. After the Reformation, many Protestant sects viewed Christmas with suspicion as "popish" and/or pagan; its celebration was actually banned during the Puritan regime in England. The 19th century ushered in a trend toward popularizing Christmas by transforming it into a secular holiday of sentimentality and benevolence. This was done at the expense of elbowing Christ off the stage. (It is noteworthy that in the most famous expression of Victorian Christmas spirit, Dickens' Christmas Carol, the words "Jesus" and Christ" do not occur even once.) By way of substitution, a new central figure was created---a motley amalgamation of Saint Nicholas, the god Odin, the pagan Yule goat, and the British Father Christmas. His image was defined by cartoonist Thomas Nast and his personality and activities by Clement Moore's "The Night Before Christmas".
Throughout the twentieth century, Santa Claus grew in importance as Christ faded into the shadows. This was largely because "Santa" equated to "gifts" which equated to "sales receipts". But the moguls of commercialization were tolerant. If you were eccentric enough to attribute some sort of religious significance to Christmas, then you were permitted to do so, just so you did it quietly. You couldn't make a major movie about the birth of Christ but you could sneak in an angel or two, as in It's a Wonderful Life, which became the entertainment world's epitome of Christmas. During this period, the infant Jesus was still allowed an occasional walk-on role, mainly in artistic Christmas cards and French carols whose cultural value outweighed their offensive religiosity.
But by the beginning of this millennium, even this crumb was denied to Christians. In a series of aggressive confrontations, every trace of Christ in Christmas has been attacked. Public nativity scenes and even Christmas trees have been challenged in the courts as violations of the First Amendment. Holiday children's movies have ceased to be religiously neutral and either deify a gigantic godlike Santa, as in The Polar Express, or else attack Christianity, as in the cynically atheistic Hogfather and the clumsily anti-Catholic Golden Compass.
Even the name "Christmas" has been erased, in the interest of inclusiveness and diversity, and been replaced by "the Holidays"---a bit of PC censorship that stores such as Sears, Kmart, Target, and Gap persist in even after threats of boycotts. The change is now complete. In the thick advertising sections of a recent Sunday newspaper, the word "Holiday" was invariably used; "Christmas" did not appear once.
The reasoning behind this censorship is positively frightening. When challenged about the change from "Christmas trees" to "holiday trees", Sears responded"
"The reason for our use of holiday tree is due to the [sic] Sears Holding is a very diverse company, we do not want to offend any of our associates, but also our valued customers. We decided to call them holiday trees because even if Christians are the only religion that uses a Christmas tree we still do not want complaints from other customers of different religions complaining about our use of Christmas."
What should Christians do against this onslaught? Since public complaints and boycotts have so far proven futile, let us try Gandhian passive resistance. Let us quietly secede from the "holidays" by abstaining from all of the customs that have helped to secularize Christmas. Specifically:
- Do not tell your children sweet lies about Santa Claus. Have the courage to tell them the blunt truth about that hypocritical old fraud and bone up on the Wikipedia article to get your facts straight. By being frank with them, you will gain their respect and give them the pleasure of being worldly-wise and cynical with their playmates. (You will also be off the hook about Christmas presents.) Bear in mind that if you yield to the temptation of telling them those "little lies" (as Prachett called them in Hogfather) about Santa and the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy, you will run the risk that, as they grow older and learn to disbelieve those myths, they will conclude that your stories about Jesus were myths too.
- Do not allow your children to participate in inclusive 'holiday' celebrations at school. Tell the school authorities that you are offended by the secular profanation of your religious holiday and that you wish your children to be excused. (Take them out for a family treat instead.) And complain that the use of a "Christian religious figure" (i.e. Santa Claus) in their parties is a violation of the first amendment.
- Do not take kids to non-religious seasonal shows. Or, if they must see The Nutcracker or Mr. Magorum's Wonder Emporium, at least make an effort to take them to one or two religious performances. If enough people express an interest in nativity plays, entrepreneurs will fall over themselves in their rush to fill that need. By way of example, the recently made Nativity Story has been shown several times this month on HBO.
- Do not emphasize a Christmas tree. Combine or even replace it with a nativity scene.
- Do not send non-religious Christmas cards. Send cards that mention the nativity and Christ, however briefly. As the sole exception, send Hanukkah cards to your Jewish friends, who are fellow victims in the war against religious holidays.
- Do not buy any Christmas gifts. If possible, avoid all purchases before Christmas and then take advantage of the after-Christmas sales to buy Epiphany presents. Take particular pains to shun the stores that avoid the use of the word "Christmas" in their promotions---and let them know why you are doing so.. If a ten percent drop in holiday receipts is enough to frighten merchandisers , think what a boycott of all practicing Christians could accomplish.
- Finally, replace all of these abstentions with religious practices. Devote as much tine and money as you can to the charities that help the poor at Christmas time; these activities are the last vestige of true Christian spirit in the 'holidays'. Within your own family, revive the old customs of Advent calendars and candles. Make a ceremony of putting the infant Jesus in your crib on Christmas Eve and singing carols. And go to church together.
By taking these steps, we can rescue the sacredness and peace of Christmas for ourselves and our families and be rescued from the turmoil, fatigue, and expense of the frantic 'holidays'.
After Christmas. it will be our turn to celebrate. On Epiphany (January 6), we can ceremonially add the Magi to our nativity scenes and then (to the envy of the neighborhood children) distribute presents to our children.
Some of you may think that the measures I've proposed are extreme and divisive. I would answer that they are no more extreme than the measures others have taken to deprive Christians of the right to publicly express their christianity. By now, we should have learned that we must fight for our rights or lose them. The question really is: do we believe and cherish our beliefs strongly enough to fight for them?