Whether Christmas should be a Christian holy day or a secular holiday is a moot point. Popular culture has so wounded the original sacred celebration that no amount of tinkering can restore its Christian meaning in the public square. Moreover, I’m not sure such restoration would be a good thing.
I would argue that the Christian meaning of gift-giving, presents, family reunions, sentimental cards and nostalgic songs has been fused with an earth religion arrival of winter. The syncretism has been so complete that separating the sacred from the profane or the commercial from the spiritual would lessen the appeal of the season. I am contented that Christianity has made its presence felt, and – unlike some militant atheists – I derive no pleasure in denying other people the chance to be happy within their own frame of familiarity.
While my eyes grow misty gazing upon the image of the child Jesus after la misa del gallo, I would find no glee in melting down Frosty the Snowman, dimming the brilliance of Reindeer Rudolf’s nose, or denying Santa his cookies and milk. I am so much in love with the diversity of seasonal mirth-making that I preserve the traditions of two cultures. In addition to Christmas in the North American mode, my family also celebrates Three Kings Day with Latino sabor.
Much of the public celebration of Christ’s birth has been boiling in controversy, almost from the beginning two thousand years ago. The Roman pagan feast of Saturnalia with its holly sprigs has elbowed its way onto the stage as has the tree worship of the Germanic peoples. In a curious sort of turn-about, the early Christians co-opted the social symbols of another (pagan) religion to absorb it into their own belief system. Now, the process is happening in reverse. There should be no complaints.
Another example of this syncretism is with Santa Claus. The bishops named St. Nicholas (there was more than one) have been transformed by a high Episcopal New York bishop’s poem into a short and fat pipe-smoking Dutchman. As remarked by Dr. John McGuckin of Union Theological Seminary who should know, there was more than a bit of class hauteur in making a saint into an ethnic caricature in the shadow of the pagan god Odin. In the 1980s, Santa lost his pipe to political correctness and now it seems is about to go on a diet as well. Get used to image shifting in a free society.
Much the same process has been changing the image of Jesus as well. As pointed out by Professor Colleen McDannell, the picture of an effeminate Jesus hung in many Catholic convents in the 19th century, while mainline Protestants envisioned a sedate middle-class Christ. Mormons liked an athletic Lord and some evangelicals today admire Christ the Warrior with laser-beam eyes. And so it goes. I don’t think these accretions from popular culture are escapable. Once a religious belief enters into the public forum, it is fair game to be recast at the lowest common denominator.
What annoys the devil out of me is polemicizing the moment. We are burdened with a 1989 court decision (County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union) that public display of commercial figures or the Jewish menorah is permissible, but a Christmas crib with Jesus, Mary and Joseph is a violation of church and state separation. The argument was that the Jewish menorah was an historical symbol, celebrating the miraculous finding of lamp oil in the temple. The birth of Jesus Christ, however, was not historical, but merely religious. After all, the day is named after a ritual “mass” marking the birth of Jesus Christ because he is believed to be the Messiah.
To escape the clutches of such hair-splitting, I would propose allowing public proclamation that December 25 honors the birthday of Jesus Christ – period. There is no room for Santa, Frosty or Rudolph in that day, nor even for the need to proclaim belief in a Messiah. It is the celebration of an historical event. Pace the atheists who believe Jesus never existed or the mentally challenged who believe they are Jesus or Napoleon or whatever, common sense indicates that world history has been changed by Christ. It might even be argued that the changes he brought were more far-reaching than those of Washington, Lincoln or Martin Luther King. If we can celebrate the birthday of those three, why not also of Jesus Christ? You don’t have to profess faith in his divinity or his miracles to only acknowledge that he had a birthday. And we could always leave it to Buddhists seeking nirvana to blow out the candles.