Skipping the holy season of Christmas

Now that you think of it, red is one of the primary Christmas colors and blue is not. Right?

So maybe that helps explain why the Christmas wars seem extra, extra nasty this year — or are being covered that way by the mainstream media. Perhaps this is all part of the values-based bitterness that followed 11/2. Are there really more angry Christians on the march these days or are there simply more upset reporters out there searching for angry Christians on the march, inspired by nightmare visions of dancing theocrats?

I can’t answer that question, even as I strive to keep up with some of the questions that readers are asking about my recent post about the equal access laws that affect the holidays and the public square.

Something else I can’t do right now is take the time to post the URLs for even a 10th of the Christmas madness stories I have seen in the past few days. As always, this means we should happily turn to the tireless cybercrats at the Christianity Today weblog. Wear yourselves out, people. Click away.

However, this is one of those weeks when I would like to point GetReligion readers toward my own Dec. 25 column for the Scripps Howard News Service, which went to the Washington, D.C., bureau this morning. It’s about what has happened to Christmas and I must admit I am hoping it ticks off some people — church people. It’s an interview with Loyola College scholar Joe Walsh (not the guitar slinger by the same name) and its about skipping Christmas — the 12 days of Christmas. Here is one of the key sections of the column. The key: What happened to wreck Christmas? How did it get sucked into the whole commercial, industrial black hole? Here goes.

The Puritan revolution in England played a major role, with its rejection of anything Catholic. Many liturgical and cultural traditions were weakened and never fully recovered, even if they were later celebrated by writers such as Charles Dickens. This had a major impact in the American colonies, where Christmas celebrations were frowned upon or in some cases banned.

At the same time, explosive growth of English cities during the industrial revolution uprooted millions of ordinary people, breaking centuries of ties binding families to churches, land, farms, shops and kin, said Walsh. Quaint traditions that united villages were hard to move to slums in London, Birmingham and Manchester. And what about New York City and the American frontier?

Modern suburbs do not have a church in a public square at the center of town. Most don’t have a public square at all and the true community center is the shopping mall. While many people complain that lawyers and activists have “taken Christ out of Christmas,” the truth is more complex than that. The reality is that almost everyone is skipping the 12-day Christmas season, including church people.

OK, people, let me have it. Before you click the comment button, you may also want to read this, this and even this. Just do it.

But please, please, do not get started arguing about the pagan roots of winter festivals and the corrupt adoption of some of these rites by early Christians and all of those other tired threads. Yes, I know all of that.

My goal was to explain — in a short, mainstream newspaper column — some of the history of the ancient traditions linked to the 12 days between the Feast of the Nativity and Epiphany.

The reality is that very, very few modern Christian believers even know that this holy season exists. Sadly, this seems to be as true among Catholics and the Orthodox as well as among the usual Protestant suspects in the booming suburban megachurches. We all live in the wake of a century of iconic Coca-Cola ads, superhighways, charge cards, television, cheap airfares and all of the other factors that have undercut family and community traditions. That’s the Christmas reality. Complaining about the ACLU has nothing to do with these larger Christmas issues.

UPDATED: If readers are interested in this whole topic, check out the Associated Press column this week by, of course, Richard Ostling. It covers the familiar viewpoint that the Dec. 25 date may have come from a pagan source, linked to the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” rites.

Then, Ostling digs into the views of church-history scholar William Tighe of Muhlenberg College (featured in Touchstone magazine), who argues that the pagans may have been trying to compete with the early Christians. Some Christians may have linked the Nativity to a date already set in tradition — the Annunciation. The reasoning is interesting, so check it out.

Then there is the testimony of St. John Chrysostom, who argued that believers had marked Dec. 25 from early on. Ostling writes:

Chrysostom had a further argument that modern scholars ignore: Luke 1 says Zechariah was performing priestly duty in the Temple when an angel told his wife Elizabeth she would bear John the Baptist. During the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary learned about her conception of Jesus and visited Elizabeth “with haste.”

The 24 classes of Jewish priests served one week in the Temple, and Zechariah was in the eighth class. Rabbinical tradition fixed the class on duty when the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 and, calculating backward from that, Zechariah’s class would have been serving Oct. 2-9 in 5 B.C. So Mary’s conception visit six months later might have occurred the following March and Jesus’ birth nine months afterward.

In other words — do the math.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Molly

    I finished reading “Skipping Christmas” by John Grisham this afternoon over lunch and was I disappointed! I had hoped that Luther would hold out and keep to his plan to go on a cruise and stick his finger in the collective eye of the tradition of commercialism that is christmas these days. The sappy gift give away at the end sort of made up for it, but not much. The neighbors banding together to “make” Christmas for them seemed to me like the ending of the book “The Stepford Wives”. Don’t stray from the norm; succumb to the inevitability of conformity…

    Alas, I think the ultimate solution is simply to make up one’s mind about how you will celebrate and tune out the rest. Maybe if enough of us did this….?

  • tmatt


    That works on one level. But the actual TRADITIONS of the Christmas season are the opposite of individualism. They are all built on, well, community worship and community festivities. This is not something that one can do solo or as an atomized nuclear family.

    No, this is a job for churches. They have to dare to fight the secular calendar.

  • Bunnie

    BRAVO on your analysis. In preparing to write about how the left corrupted Christmas, I was shocked to find that it was, in fact, the Puritans and Calvinists who only agreed to celebrate Christmas (after centuries of trying to stifle it) if they could get celebrate it devoid of religious meaning.

    How odd that they now claim that the mainstream media and blue states have taken the religious meaning out of Christmas . . .

  • Tom Harmon

    Puritans and Calvinists don’t often just have red-state addresses, Bunnie. I’ve always thought that the best description of the really blue-state, secular Americans is apostate Puritans who are still huanted by their Puritanism.

  • Chip

    As you say, the missing public square can be found at the mall. And the Christmas carols disappear as soon as there is nothing left to buy.

    Even though we as a congregation do not sing Christmas carols during Advent, and refuse to decorate the sanctuary until Dec. 24, it is hard to do anything special over those twelve days, because everyone is either back at work or on vacation. The only way that the twelve days of Christmas (or at least the eight days after) survive, because many people take vacation so that they can visit far-flung family.

  • Todd Granger

    The alternative to the standard “history of religions” theory about the origins of Christmas in the Nativity of the Invincible Sun has ably been advanced by Prof Thomas Talley in his book Origins of the Liturgical Year and can be traced (in its modern form) to the work of early 20th century French liturgical scholars.

    The available evidence very much favors the theory ably argued by Dr Tighe et al. Indeed, the long-held view that Christians borrowed December 25 from the pagans (rather that vice versa!) is based largely on assumption, rather than careful examination of the historical record.

  • Cindy

    More about the dating of Christmas at (scroll down to the 2nd question).

    Have a blessed Messiahmas, y’all! :)

  • Gigantic Hound

    For what it’s worth: I’ve always understood that the best case against the Dec. 25 date was that in the West Bank in late December, shepherds have no reason to abide in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night (ie. while maximizing their grazing time.) There is no pasturage at that time of year, and sheep would be in enclosures being fed on fodder. The watch-over-their-flocks-by-night thing would make more sense in April.