The annual battle over the public celebration of Christmas took an interesting turn this year. When a Wal-Mart customer complained that Wal-Mart was replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays,” a customer service writer identified only as “Kirby” replied that Wal-Mart was a multi-national and multi-cultural concern, and that Christmas was pagan-based, anyway, so what was she all hot about? This reply led the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights to declare a boycott on the grounds the “Wal-Mart Bans Christmas.” A month later, Wal-Mart fired “Kirby,” changed its website to not automatically redirect “Christmas” inquiries to a “holidays” page, and apologized. They also affirmed that they serve all cultures and don’t celebrate any particular religion’s holidays. The Catholic League declared victory – “Wal-Mart Caves; Boycott Ends” – and called off the organized diminution of enthusiasm.
In our household we do celebrate Christmas. We put up a tree and a wreath, but go lightly on the whole presents and orgy-of-stuff aspect. We will be in church on Christmas Eve. I like the family getting together, the twinkly lights, and the uptick in niceness.
As a Christian, though, I think Christmas has become a National Holiday more than a religious one. What is, by rights, a secondary holiday in the Christian calendar has become a big deal by its association with civil celebrations, first with the pagan Roman year-end holiday, and then with the modern commercial spree. Christmas in America is, I think, more a holiday of the civil religion than of the church. Ironically, the gravitational pull of the civil-religion Christmas has had a similar effect outside of Christianity. The even less-weighty holiday of Hanukkah in the Jewish religious calendar has been transformed into a similar family-and-presents holiday. And the entire holiday of Kwanzaa was invented as a quasi-religious African-American celebration of the same sort. I think it is only a matter of time before American Muslims and Hindus find a reason to have a family-and-presents event in late December, however much they have to twist their religious calendar to get there.
I am a fairly traditional Presbyterian. I try to keep the pagan elements of the Christian holiday celebrations to a minimum. As it happens, Helen Walton, Sam Walton’s widow and head of the Wal-Mart clan, is also a traditional Presbyterian. And it is true that in American tradition, the Puritans forbade Christmas celebration altogether because of its pagan associations. The Quakers who founded my hometown of Plymouth Meeting, PA, likewise would not have countenanced Christmas celebrations. Swarthmore, founded by those same Quakers, would not break for Christmas even at the end of the nineteenth century. When they were finally obliged to have a winter vacation, they pointedly began it on December 26th, lest anyone think they had gone soft on the pagan and Catholic Christmas.
So, I celebrate Christmas. But I don’t expect the state to. The state celebrates only the nation, not Jesus. Nor do I expect the market to celebrate Christmas. The market celebrates only commerce. So Merry Christmas from me, and Happy Shopidays to Wal-Mart.