Does Christmas Have to be a Religious Holiday?

Does Christmas Have to be a Religious Holiday?

Christmastime is upon us once again. All the signs are apparent: malls are packed to the brim, Christmas music plays incessantly, and the less organized among us (myself included) scramble to acquire all the gifts on our Christmas shopping lists. And yet, underlying the yuletide cheer there lurks a contentious debate over the following question: to what extent should we celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday?

Perhaps the loudest voices in this debate have been those on the far right of the American political spectrum. Bill O’Reilly, for example, for a period of about 10 years, used his show to shame companies that refused to use the expression “Merry Christmas” in favor of the more secular “Happy Holidays.” On Sean Hannity’s show, a vociferous argument erupted between Hannity and David Silverman, president of the advocacy group American Atheists, over the place of religion in Christmas. When Silverman claimed that “Christmas is better without the religion,” Hannity cut him off, retorting that “Christmas isn’t Christmas without the religion.”  On the campaign trail in November 2015, President Trump suggested that his supporters boycott Starbucks in protest against their Christmas cup design, which featured a plain red cup in lieu of Christmas-themed illustrations. The debate continues this Christmas season, with certain conservatives contending that Starbucks’s most recent Christmas cup advances the “gay agenda.” Additionally, Tony Perkins of the Daily Signal, a publication sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, has publicly praised President Trump for his inclusion of a nativity scene in the White House, writing that Trump, “is separating [himself] from the Obamas, who came dangerously close to ditching the 50-year-old display in 2009. There wasn’t room for Jesus at the inn—and for eight years, there wasn’t much room for him at 1600 Pennsylvania either.”

 Starbucks's controversial Christmas cup design.  (Source: Hollis Johnson)

Starbucks's controversial Christmas cup design. (Source: Hollis Johnson)

The arguments that O’Reilly, Hannity, and others present to demonstrate that there is a “War on Christmas” are largely overblown and unconvincing. To interpret a plain red cup or a friendly “Happy Holidays” as a vast left-wing conspiracy against American Christianity is not only petty and paranoid, but also borders on a conspiracy theory. O’Reilly, Hannity, and Trump are not so much concerned with getting at truth as they are with manipulating their base to accomplish their own ends, whether those be elevated television ratings or election to the presidency. However, amidst the sea of lunacy, there is a droplet of truth; Christmas is not celebrated in the United States as a religious holiday, nor has it been for a long time.

Imagine, for a moment, that an intelligent species of aliens came to earth and observed the behavior of Americans from Black Friday until Christmas Day. What would they make of Christmas? It seems to me that they would be hard pressed to interpret it as anything other than a celebration of unbridled materialism. While there is a vague connection to a kind of mythologized version of Christ, and while many otherwise secular Americans make an appearance in Church on Christmas Eve out of reverence for this traditional association, it would surely be ridiculous to suggest that the religious element of the holiday is what motivates the intense excitement that accompanies the season. People don’t trample each other half to death (or sometimes all the way to death) on Black Friday as they contemplate the divine mystery of how God became man; rather, they do so as they rush to secure a barbie doll for their daughter before some other crazed, bloodthirsty parent beats them to it.

 Americans swarm a department store on Black Friday in 2011.  (Source: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

Americans swarm a department store on Black Friday in 2011. (Source: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

Christmas, as we have come to celebrate it, is only superficially a religious holiday, except to the extent that materialism is America’s unofficial religion. Fundamentally, Christmas is about acquiring and exchanging material goods. The efforts, therefore, of figures like O’Reilly and Hannity who seek to protect Christian America against the advancing forces of secular progressivism are wasted; they seek to protect an imaginary notion of Christmas. Though many Americans celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday (and to make my own biases transparent, I count myself among that group), Christmas as a national phenomenon is anything but religious.

Pandora’s box is open; Christmas, as we now celebrate it, is only superficially religious, and it seems as though this will remain the case for the foreseeable future. However, this is not to say that the way we do celebrate Christmas is without its problems. One need not be religious to realize that the unbridled pursuit of material goods is a degrading pursuit contrary to the dignity of the human person. Money is good for some things; it can buy large houses, fancy cars, the finest cuisine, and so on. All of these things can make one comfortable, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. However, there is an enormous difference between comfort and fulfillment, and money has nothing to do with the latter. Money cannot provide one with fulfilling, meaningful relationships. Money cannot provide moral direction, which we all need from time to time. Most importantly of all, money cannot allow one to avoid what is perhaps the most fundamental of all human realities, the inevitability of suffering and death; as the old Irish proverb goes, “there are no pockets in a shroud.” To worship at the altar of materialism, therefore, is a pathetic and debasing thing to do to oneself. It is to deny the human capability for deeper, more meaningful pursuits, thereby reducing life to a game of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. An amoeba knows how to do that. Surely we are capable of more. Surely there is something in the human spirit that aspires toward something higher than simply comfort.

In place of this degrading celebration of Christmas, it seems to me that we can and should embrace a vision of Christmas that is still secular, but nonetheless elevating. Christmas can be about acquiring expensive, fancy items that engender brief fascination followed by long term boredom, or it can be about developing and celebrating meaningful relationships that will endure over time and sustain one through good fortune and bad. We have to recognize gifts for what they are: ephemeral tokens of something deeper, of the connection shared between two people. That connection, not the gift, is what we should really celebrate. The Renaissance French philosopher Michel de Montaigne penned a beautiful essay on friendship in which he wrote that, in a deep and meaningful friendship, if “one [friend] could give to the other, the receiver of the benefit would be the man that obliged his friend.” If we want Christmas to become an occasion for elevating the human spirit and rising above the petty materialism to which we have fallen victim, we have to learn to appreciate giving as much as receiving. We have to stop thinking egotistically, that is in terms of individual material gain, and start learning to rejoice in the happiness of others without jealousy or envy.

Should we choose to make this transition, Christmas can go from a debasing celebration of material indulgence to an elevating celebration of the human capacity for fraternity. I don’t pretend to know precisely how to enact this transition, or exactly what the resulting celebration of Christmas would look like. However, if we desire to celebrate the holiday in a way that calls us to live up to our full human potential, we must begin to have a conversation about these matters. My above suggestions are merely preliminary.

I will close with a final admonition: as December 25 approaches, endeavor to treat the holiday not as an opportunity to acquire all the things on your Christmas list, but rather as an opportunity to deepen the moral dimension of your life. Give and receive without counting the cost; carve out time to engage meaningfully with friends and family; try to regard the joy of others with joy on your own part, rather than envy. Should we choose to enact these steps, among others, then perhaps the holiday can be saved from its excessive materialism and turned into a meaningful opportunity for growth. Bearing that in mind, allow me to wish you a very merry Christmas.

(Overhead picture: A nativity scene. Source: Getty Images

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