Are Christians Fighting the Wrong “War on Christmas”?

A few years ago I was walking through Woodfield Mall, the largest one in Illinois, just before Christmas. I was disappointed to see that Santa’s grotto, where children waited in line for a brief one-on-one consultation with Mr. Claus, had been transformed into an enormous promotional display for the upcoming movie, Happy Feet.

Apparently the mall’s managers were not bothered that Santa was difficult to see among the huge images of computer generated penguins, and clearly nobody was disturbed by the geographic discrepancy–penguins only live at the South Pole and Santa resides at the North Pole. Sadder to me was the absence of the enormous Christmas tree that had stood at the center of the mall since my childhood. It appeared that Santa had sold his season, and his soul, to Warner Brothers Studios. I was, however, comforted by the irony of the scene–the character that had commercialized Christmas a century ago had fallen victim to his own devices.

Christians have always had a strained relationship with Saint Nick. Although his origins are rooted deeply in church lore, his association with the secularization of Christmas has made him a persona non grata in many churches and Christian communities. But many of us forget that Christmas itself is a holiday of dubious origin. For example, the Puritans were stridently opposed to the celebration of Christmas. They could find no biblical support for the holiday, and they believed (correctly) that it was originally a pagan festival now masquerading as Christian one. This view was widely held in America throughout the 19th Century. In 1855, newspapers in New York reported that Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches would be closed on Christmas Day because “they do not accept the day as a Holy One.” And by the 1860s only 18 states officially recognized the holiday.

Christmas only gained acceptance among a majority of Protestant Christians when it gained wide acceptance by the American public in general. And that can be attributed to the rise of Santa Claus in the secular pantheon. Old Saint Nick became a marketing juggernaut for retailers who by the 1920s had embraced Christmas as the premier season for shopping. Church leaders no longer objected to Christmas on the grounds that it was a pagan holiday. Instead their concerns shifted to the ungodly materialism and indulgence of desire they saw being promoted in the name of Christ.

The New York Times conducted a survey of Christmas sermons in 1931 and reported a common theme: “the suggestion that Christmas could not survive if Christ were thrust into the background by materialism.” Another popular sermon of the period railed that Advent had become little more than a “profit-seeking period.”

Sermons about the pagan origins of Christmas or the danger of rampant materialism in Christ’s name are unlikely to be heard today. In recent years the dominant message heard from the Christian community during the holiday season has been precisely the opposite. Today, it seems many Christians are offended when unchecked materialism in December is not explicitly associated with Christ. The irony.

Since 2005, Fox News has deployed its minions to wage their war on the “War on Christmas,” and the American Family Association has pushed for a boycott of stores for not using the words “Merry Christmas” in their seasonal marketing. Like many public institutions, some retailers opt to use the inclusive phrase “Happy Holidays” which these groups interpret as a slam to Jesus Christ- the real “reason for the season.”

It amazes me that in less than a century Christians have gone from opposing over-consumption at Christmas to demanding it be done in Christ’s name alone. The explanation may be in the numbers. Two-thirds of the U.S. economy is based on consumer spending, and 50-75 percent of most retailers annual profits are generated during December. This means the weeks before Christmas are the high holy days of consumerism. If Christians engaged the Advent season as they did in generations past, by modeling moderation and self-denial or by ignoring the holiday altogether, it would likely destroy (what remains of) the economy.

To ensure economic survival consumers are stirred into a buying frenzy every winter with the goal of making this year’s shopping season more prosperous than the previous. Santa Claus has been the mascot of this manipulation since the early 20th Century, but if more Consumer Christians have their way the season of shopping would be inaugurated by the appearance of Jesus Christ at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade instead.

Sadly, the “War on Christmas” and “Christmas Under Siege” campaigns pushed by some conservative Christians says more about the church’s captivity to consumerism than its commitment to the love of Christ and their neighbors.

 




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18 Comments

  • […] was thinking about that exchange then I read Skye Jethani’s post asking “Are Christians Fighting the Wrong ‘War on Christmas?” Share […]

  • December 17, 2011

    Kevin Cole

    Brilliant analysis, sadly. The problem with real history is that it tends to kick the butts of so many of the things that we’d prefer to believe.

    In the final analysis, was “Modern Christmas” a cause of this “symbolism over substance” culture? Or a result? Or did they just grow up together, along with a thousand other societal ills? (Serious question, there – not just a slam. I’d really love to hear your thoughts on that!)

  • December 19, 2011

    Kathy

    Ironic indeed.

  • […] entitlements? » Are Christians Fighting the Wrong “War on Christmas”? – SKYEBOX http://www.skyejethani.com/are-christians-fighting-the-wrong-war-on-christmas/1076/ It amazes me that in less than a century Christians have gone from opposing over-consumption at […]

  • […] that Santa had sold his season, and his soul, to Warner Brothers Studios. I was, however… continue reading Share Filed Under: […]

  • […] Skye Jethani writes (emphasis mine): The New York Times conducted a survey of Christmas sermons in 1931 and reported a common theme: “the suggestion that Christmas could not survive if Christ were thrust into the background by materialism.” Another popular sermon of the period railed that Advent had become little more than a “profit-seeking period.” […]

  • December 20, 2011

    Ted G.

    What would happen if believers celebrated the birth of Christ on the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, the real date, biblically and historically date that Christ was born. Check it out for yourself.

    • December 4, 2013

      Keith

      Just preached on John 7 & 8 last weekend – The Feast Of Tabernacles. I said it was my Christmas sermon.

  • December 22, 2011

    Brent

    Nice article. A friend let me know of it and wondered if I had read yours. 🙂 Not until now. I am doing a short series on Advent or Christmas @ http://www.heyblogwithbrent.blogspot.com

    While the date of Christmas day has pagan origins no doubt…there is something to be said about the early church commandeering a date to put an emphasis on Jesus, the Son of God (which meant deity by the time this happened in early 4th century – if I remember the date right). As with many things, it would be great to know exactly what happened at that point in history.

  • December 23, 2011

    oscar

    Christmas is to remember the birth of Jesus no the birth of gifts

  • […] is likely that you do on Christmas. Although the holiday has been largely commercialized and even Christians buy into the commercialism, I believe there is still a remnant of meaning left in the holiday. Unlike other holidays with […]

  • December 3, 2013

    Pastor Andy Kuder

    I am the Youth and Worship pastor for our church. I resonate with some of the conclusions of this article. I recently wrote the following short article for our monthly newsletter:

    Christmas time brings out the best and worst in many people. I am always encouraged when strangers greet each other with “merry Christmas,” but sometimes we hear “happy holidays.” People say “happy holidays” to avoid offending someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but in doing, they offend those of us who do celebrate Christmas. Some of us Christians take the offense and return it with “merry Christmas,” which may be a nice gesture, but it can come across as a passive-aggressive way of telling them off.
    Jesus never forced anyone to follow him. When the crowds came, he would speak to them, and when they left, he did not call after them to stay. Jesus spoke to the rich young ruler and told him what he must do to have eternal life, the ruler “went away sorrowful” (Matthew 19:16-22). Jesus did not chase after him, or try to convince him to change his mind. He simply turned to his disciples and used this as a time to teach them.
    We are to preach the Gospel into all the world, but this example illustrates that Jesus did not intend us to shove it down their throats. That just gives them a bad taste for the Word. Jesus ministered through love and forgiveness teaching scripture to those who were willing to hear it. We should follow His example and share Jesus’ love and forgiveness, and then share scripture with those who want to hear it.
    Everyone interacts with other people. As we interact with our friends, we can share deeper conversations. Our friends are more willing to hear what we have to share than strangers are, so share Jesus’ love and forgiveness with everyone, but share it as you would with a friend, be sensitive to their understandings and their willingness.
    If you bump into a “happy holidays” person, first pray that God would give you the grace to treat them as a friend, and that He would give you the right words to say, then share with them from the heart, out of love. We should take time to spread the Gospel this season, let’s do it with love.

  • December 4, 2013

    Fred

    There is some evidence that has been presented that this was never a pagan holiday. There is a great article that I ran across that debunks the myth. http://www.traditioninaction.org/religious/e031rp_PaganOrigins.html

  • December 4, 2013

    Ro

    Not only consumerism but the exporting of consumerism found concretely in the ever popular ‘Operation Christmas Child’ where well to do parents and kids get the dubious distinction of filling shoeboxes full of cheap consumer goods for the temporary satisfaction of sending a ‘gift’ to a poor kid on Christmas.

  • […] …But are some conservatives fighting the wrong war? […]

  • January 15, 2014

    Mike Czap

    Addressing an unpopular practice of the time, Jesus said that if someone forced you to go one mile with them, to go a second mile. As I understand it, Roman law gave a soldier the right to make a person carry their gear for a mile. You can bet there was some interesting conversation the 2nd mile.

    Jesus said the way you overcome evil is with good.

  • December 31, 2014

    Paul Offhaus

    A good antidote among many Christians to this sad trend has been The Advent Conspiracy, which our church also followed this past Advent season. Its four tenets: Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, and Love All.

  • January 8, 2015

    Tracey

    I love the points you make here. It’s nice how you’ve crystallized the issue and thrown in some historical perspectives as well. You always strike me as the most balanced view of the three on Phil’s podcast as well.

    Skye, I tried to use the promo code you mentioned on podcast for the trial devotional, but it’s giving me “promo not valid”. Did you run out of freebies?