Sunday, December 11, 2005

Is Happy Holidays Worse Than Merry Civil Religion Christmas?

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.


Jules said...

I agree that Christmas has become more a civil holiday than a Christian holiday. In fact, a few years ago I saw a Jewish man being interviewed on some morning talk show about how he wanted his children at his house, rather than at his ex-wife's house, for Christmas. His response to the question about why this would be important to a Jewish man was, "Christmas is the all-American holiday."

My parents get angry when clerks in stores say "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas." Maybe I have been way too influenced by our pluralistic culture, but I don't really have a problem with "happy holidays," especially when the way our culture celebrates those holidays and/or Christmas seems so far away from the paradoxical message of God becoming a baby.

I, too, celebrate Christmas. I like the tree and the decorations, even if they do stem from pagan roots. And I confess that at times I find it hard to remember what it is we are really celebrating--I get caught up in the Christmas as our culture has defined it (lots of spending, lots of presents, etc.).
In all of this, I struggle with knowing when to appreciate pluralism and when to fight against it. Either way, I think it (along with consumerism and capitalism) has a significant impact on the Western Church, that we cannot ignore.
On a side note, I think there are many bigger reasons to boycott Wal-Mart than their choice of the holidays over Christmas.

Gruntled said...

I keep waiting for the greeting card industry to complain that churches are stealing their Mother's Day ... :)

Anonymous said...

“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.”

Perhaps it’s already happening. I went to the post office to purchase stamps to mail our Christmas cards and the postmaster said he only had three “Christmas books” available: one with Santas, one Kwanzaa stamp with a row of African-American women in colorful clothing and one blue stamp with something in gold that looked to me like a Christmas tree and read “Greetings” at the bottom. At home, my husband, who was paying closer attention, informed me that what I thought at first glance was a Christmas tree design was Arabic script. We looked it up online and the Islamic calligraphy on the stamp translates to: "May your religious holiday be blessed." The stamp is to commemorate Eid al-Fitr, an Islamic festival that will be celebrated on December 16.

samoabob said...

As a conservative Christian, I am perplexed that my fellow CC's are making the Happy Holidays thing an issue. For years we've been decrying the commercialization of the Christmas holiday (even while abetting it). But now that retailers and others have obliged us by using generic greetings, many of my evangelical colleagues are demanding that Jesus' name reassociated with gluttony. I'm just not getting it.

As long as no one is arresting or suing me for saying Merry Christmas, I'm content with that. How someone else chooses to greet me, or entice me to buy their stuff, is up to them.

By the way, gruntled, I'm a Centre grad from a ways back. Go Colonels!

Gruntled said...

I count on the far-flung network of Colonels to keep me informed of developing events. I knew that Eid was in December this year, but didn't know it had a stamp already. Ramadan is, I believe, on the lunar calendar, though, and cycles through the year, so it won't always be so conveniently situated in December. But for the near future that will be so, which coincides with the first time in American history when we have really taken American Muslims seriously.

And I agree entirely with Samoabob that Christians fussing trying to have it both ways on commercial Christmas is unseemly.

Anonymous said...

The "war on Christmas" is mostly an excuse for grumpy folks to play Scrooge. They can go on for hours and hours over something they heard on O'Reilly. It's a wonderful way for that type to spoil it for everybody.

Gruntled said...


Anonymous said...

Christmas is abbreviated from Christ Mass....As a Protestant believer (who is still 'protesting'!) I do not celebrate Christ Mass or any other mass (only the Lord's Supper).

Holiday is abbreviated from holy days....I just tell folks Happy Holy Days--if the day isn't holy to them it's ok. I try to make each day as holy as the next.

And as to the time of year any & all of this is celebrated...according to those that know much more than I on the subject Yeshua of Nazareth was probably born in the spring as that is the time of the 'lambing' when the "shepherds (as in plural!) were in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night". Any other time of year usually a shepherd (singular) could watch by himself (think young King David alone in the fields!).

And as to birthday the time of Yeshua of Nazareth only Kings celebrated their birthdays (cause they could afford a celebration maye?)....the average person celebrated 'death days' (much as I guess I still gage time by when my daddy died 20 yrs. ago)...

Yeshua of Nazareth identified with the common man...He came in the form of the Lamb of God...the good Shepherd at most....

HE told HIS disciples to celebrate HIS death! To partake of the'Last Supper'---"This do in remembrance of me."

We sure do get things all turned around & befuddled, don't we?