Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Meaning of the Meaning of Christmas

I've been thinking a lot about the real reasons behind the allegations of the existence of a "war on Christmas." At first, I thought that Fox News and the Christian right were hurting their own cause, because they're diluting the religious messages historically associated with Christmas. Then I realized, that's not an accidental side effect, that's their purpose. And I think I know why.

First, how are they diluting the religious message of Christmas? Well, both the New York Times and Salon had excellent pieces on the background of Christmas recently. As the Times reported, the first Europeans to settle here didn't even celebrate Christmas, due to the fact that its origins lay in paganism, not the Bible (a beliefnet.com search of the King James version turns up not a single mention), and due to the fact that celebrations of it tended to be irreligious (i.e., prone to drinking and swearing and other awful things).

Celebrating Christmas was a crime for years in colonial Massachusetts. It wasn't, in fact, until the tame, family-friendly domestications of Clement Moore and Thomas Nast rendered Christmas innocuous, that Christmas began to enjoy broad-based support from both the Christian clergy and the lay community. (Both the Times and, especially, Salon, have a lot of fascinating such tidbits on Christmas history). And despite what the Christian right would have us believe about a recently emerging "liberal" or "secular" war on Christmas, it was only a generation or two after Christmas was popularized in the U.S., that the backlash arose -- from neither "liberals" nor atheists...but from Christians and Jews.

They had different laments. But interestingly, and tellingly, we only hear one today. Jews at the time had the audacity to oppose the fact that they were sending their kids to their public schools to have their teachers, paid with their tax dollars, lead the class in Christmas carols. That battle -- to end official, governmental endorsements of Christmas (as specifically prohibited by the First Amendment) -- still continues. The other part of the backlash came from Christian clergy who felt that the commodification of Christmas, and its implementation as a sales tool, watered down their intended message for the holiday (peace and love, I guess; the usual claims).

But today, it's only freaks who still fight that battle. We don't hear the commentators on Fox News decrying commercialization. We don't hear today's Christian leaders calling for an end to Christmas sales. These factions are the ones demanding Christmas sales, Christmas flyers, Christmas banners and Christmas marketing plans.

Why have today's defenders of Christianity championed the one element of Christmas rejected by the Christianity of that early-to-mid-20th-century era so cherished by the Christian right? I asked myself why we don't see Fox News, or the Christian right, demand the universal embrace and proclamation of Easter. The difference is that Easter has no competition.

It's the fact that Christmas has (admittedly scant) competition that makes the Christian right so nuts. That's why we don't hear them hollering about stores that have NO banners up and NO sales this time of year. It's not about ignoring Christmas; it's about including other people.

The one defining feature of modern, fundamentalist, conservative Christianity is its claim to exceptionalism. We saw it in the literally violent backlash against a proposed college course that dared not just to criticize so-called "intelligent design," but worse: Treat it as just another creation myth.

It's the one thing they can't stand -- the notion that their religion and their holidays and their slogans are just another constellation in the pantheon. That's why a Wal-Mart employee was fired for his e-mail about the origins of Christmas; not because he denied its religious message, but because he exposed the fact that it was a hodge-podge of elements from other religions. They don't care whether Christmas is commercialized. They don't care whether Christmas loses the original religious (or spiritual, if you must) message.

Because modern-day, American, conservative Christianity is not about active pursuit of the principles and social radicalism attributed to a guy named Jesus in a book of questionable authorship. Modern-day, American, conservative Christianity is all about claiming a personal relationship with a god that just happens to endorse all the stuff you believe.

That's why Fox News commentators want Christmas acknowledged by name, but not in principle. I originally thought they and the Christian right were losing the alleged Christmas war by fighting for commercialization of Christmas, and for its osmosis into a generic, essentially secular event, devoid of challenging Jesus stuff. But that's not a loss for them. That's a victory. They want something they can use, not something they have to serve. Because the Christianity they want to see prevail isn't a text-based Christianity; it's the Christianity of President Bush, a Christianity that makes no demands, that requires no introspection, that elevates one's alleged "heart" to the status of divine interlocutor.

The Christianity they want to see triumph is just as valid an interpretation of the Bible as any other (that's the beauty of a vague, self-contradicting, maybe-it's-literal-maybe-it's-metaphorical, committee-edited mess). But its validity isn't the point. The point is that they want their version of Christmas, and Christianity, to triumph not in order to serve some beneficial ethic underlying it, but because their version serves them. In other words, they're fighting their own war on both the historical and religious Christmas for one simple reason: They consider it better to receive, than to give.


KGB said...

How about the mega churches that are cancelling Sunday services on Christmas Day because, well, who wants to interrupt the Holy Sacrament of Conspicuous Consumption? Hell, there are 51 other Sundays in the year, I guess.


The scary thing is I agree with Jerry Falwell on this.

I'll be outside looking for the Four Horsemen to show up. Wonder if they'll have sleighbells?

Anonymous said...

I don't see what's so wrong with celebrating Christmas. I think it's a nice holiday!

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