There is a lot of silliness in the contemporary (and now perennial) and largely conservative complaint that there is a “war on Christmas.” Often cited as evidence is the common replacement of “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” and the use of “Xmas” instead of “Christmas.”
The former is a recognition that Christmas has become more than a Christian holiday in increasingly pluralistic and secular Western societies. The latter should not bother Christians: “X” has been a Christian abbreviation for Christ from at least the third and fourth centuries (see Ben Corey’s recent blog, “Keeping the X in Xmas”).
More seriously, today’s lamentation about the war on Christmas misses the real war on Christmas. Its subversive and revolutionary meanings have been co-opted for many centuries by the Christian emphasis on sin and our need for a savior who will pay for our sins. More recently, it has been co-opted by commercialization.
To begin with the latter: for many people, including many Christians, Christmas and the weeks leading up to it (Advent, for Christians) have become the most frantic and harried and busy time of the year.
Consider the two most common contemporary Christmas customs: sending Christmas cards and buying Christmas gifts. So it was in my family until about fifteen years ago when my wife and I decided to cease sending cards and shopping for Christmas gifts. But until then, the weeks before Christmas were dominated by the need to get our Christmas cards sent (often with a Christmas letter) and to figure out what to purchase for those on our gift list. The decision to stop giving gifts was made easier by the fact that our children had become adults. If they had still been children, we would have continued buying gifts for them.
Both of these customs are recent innovations. The first commercially-produced Christmas cards appeared in 1873. So also buying Christmas gifts is a product of the late 1800s and took awhile to become widespread. Until then, Christmas gifts were simple and largely homemade. Imagine for a moment the weeks before Christmas without the need to send cards and buy gifts.Perhaps the most glaring example of the co-optation of Christmas by commercial culture is “Black Friday,” which has now invaded Thanksgiving. People lining up to get bargains. Even violence among shoppers. And consider: for the most part, it is relatively poor people competing with each other, but all driven by the cultural convention and compulsion to buy Christmas gifts.
To continue with the former: the co-optation of Advent and Christmas by Christianity itself. For many centuries – now almost a thousand years – the most common forms of Western Christianity have emphasized that Jesus’s primary significance is that he died to pay for our sins. This notion affects the meaning of Christmas: Christmas is the birth of the one who will save us from our sins so that we can go to heaven. It results in a radical domestication and individualization of the story of Jesus and Christmas.
To say the obvious: Christmas matters for Christians because Jesus matters for Christians. And what was Jesus about? His message, his passion, was about the coming of the Kingdom of God. It was about the transformation of this world into a different kind of world. It was about the downfall of domination systems and the birth of a world of justice and peace. Of course, the Kingdom of God is also about our individual transformation through loving the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and strength. It is about our transformation and the transformation of the world.
The muting of this message by common Christianity and by the commercialization of Christmas is the real war on Christmas. Imagine that Christians were once again to realize that Christmas – the birth of Jesus and the coming of the Kingdom of God – are pervasively subversive and revolutionary. Christmas and Jesus are about God’s passion, God’s dream, for a different kind of world here below, here and now.