The other day, I sat down to watch a little TV with my youngest child. He was watching the “Phineas and Ferb” Christmas special. I was surprised. I’m not an enormous Disney fan – for a number of reasons – but this was better than I expected. It was about Christmas and being kind and generous to others, and sharing the spirit of the season with family and friends. When it was over, I realized that there was only one thing missing: Jesus. It was a very nice, sweet show for kids that purported to be about Christmas but made no mention of Christ.
As it turns out, this is typically American. In the United States, Christmas is an enormously significant holiday, bigger and more significant, perhaps, than all the rest put together. But paradoxically, it’s not a particularly religious holiday.
Several years ago, a handful of very serious people on the political and cultural Right decided that they had had enough of the “holiday” nonsense. They were tired of being wished “happy holidays” by everyone around them. They were tired of schools holding “winter pageants.” They were tired of it all. They declared that the culture – and, by extension, the cultural Left – had waged a “war on Christmas,” and that good, Christian people everywhere should join the battle and fight back, in the name of Christmas! They decided that we should wish everyone a “Merry Christmas,” rather than “Happy Holidays.” They decided that we should send Christmas cards, rather than Holiday letters. They urged us all to “remember the reason for the season.”
Again, though, there was only one little catch. They thought that fighting this war meant using the right words at the right time, and little more. They didn’t push to associate the season with the God-child for whom the holiday is named. They merely pushed back against the cultural notion that all holidays are created equal and thus must be celebrated equally.
To many of the Christmas warriors, you see, the entire “war on Christmas” served merely as a tangible and outrage-inducing proxy for what they saw as the real battle, which was being waged against the cultural Left more generally. They weren’t fighting for Christmas. They were fighting against the post-modern, post-Christian news-entertainment complex. If you say “Merry Christmas,” their thinking went, then you were sticking it to the radical secularists and striking a blow for traditional values. Hooray!
Unfortunately, none of this brought anyone any closer to understanding the real meaning and the real reason for the holiday.
Last week, the inimitable Christopher Caldwell penned a piece for The Spectator in which he detailed Americans’ obsession with Christmas as a secular tradition, as opposed to a religious celebration. Among other things, he noted the following:
“Everyone loves Christmas, but the materialism of the holiday has long unhinged Americans. In his poem ‘Church Going’ Philip Larkin uses the expression ‘Christmas addict’. Perhaps that was poetic licence when Larkin wrote it, half a century ago. Today there are articles in women’s magazines and on gossipy websites with titles like ‘How Not to Go Bankrupt This Christmas’. The way the distinctly American holiday of Thanksgiving falls in late November turns the entire holiday season into a festival of excess. Advent now becomes a kind of anti-Lent where, instead of taking a break from our vices, we pick up new ones. Instead of having a last blowout (Mardi Gras) before several weeks of penitence, Americans have a feast of humility and gratitude (Thanksgiving) followed by a month of going overboard….”
The country gets more Christmassy even as it gets less Christian.
Caldwell is right, of course. This has long been the American way, and the holiday has lost nearly all religious meaning for most Americans. Last week, the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life released the results of a new survey which found “that most U.S. adults believe the religious aspects of Christmas are emphasized less now than in the past – even as relatively few Americans are bothered by this trend.”
Ironically, all of this was addressed in another children’s Christmas special that aired for the first time more than a half-century ago. The main character laments the “commercialization” of Christmas and finds himself struggling to figure out what the entire season is all about. Fortunately, his best friend steps in to remind him. We could all learn a lesson from that little boy, who, clutching his blue security blanket, strolled to the center stage and said:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding
in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them,
and the glory of the Lord shone round about them:
and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold,
I bring you good tidings of great joy,
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior,
which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe
wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the
heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace,
goodwill toward men.
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.