Merry idolatry season!

Merry idolatry season! November 24, 2012

Recently, in the last couple days, I’ve been in places where I have to listen to loud, canned, “Christmas” music. I didn’t have to strain to hear the words; they were loud and clear. In one well-known chain coffee shop I have heard dozens of “seasonal” songs but not one about Jesus–directly or indirectly. One song is about Santa Claus and contains the words “Santa brings us peace” and “Santa brings us all love.” There is no doubt that the song’s writer intended to replace Jesus with Santa Claus in the Christmas mythos. I asked a waiter why the store plays only secular “Christmas” music and he said they get complaints if they play anything religious. I said “Please tell the manager that I’m a customer, too, and I’m offended that the store plays only secular “Christmas” music.” He just looked at me like I have two heads.

Even as I write this I hear several Christian voices answering me in my mind. “Let the pagans have the holiday” (Rodney Clapp) is one that I respect.  Maybe I’m just too old, but I have trouble going with that. Christians are still a significant portion of this society and our celebration of   this holiday should at least be acknowledged and taken seriously by those who want our business.

I say play music of all the celebrations of the season–Jewish, Christian, African-American, secular, etc.

Of course the other response I agree with entirely is that the “real” idolatry of the season is the excess of consumerism, not music.


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  • Roger,

    I had to google Rodney Clapp to find the article you alluded to. I found if quite ironic that Clapp’s solution is for Christians to “reclaim Easter.” The irony is that both Christmas and Easter began as pagan holidays, and Easter is the one that still goes by its pagan name. Even though the holiday was given Christian trappings centuries ago, it is associated with the vernal equinox as was the ancient rite of the Mother Goddess (Eostre, a.k.a. Eastre), whose name the holiday still bears.

    For me, I have to recognize that even though Christmas itself had pagan origins, the myth runs deep and as a Christian I find great meaning in commemorating the birth of Christ as the light of the world and the hope for all creation. It also allows me to cut the “pagans” some slack in the way they celebrate the holiday today. For my part, I belong now to the liturgical tradition that truly honors the time as a religious celebration of faith. During Christmas (and Easter) I immerse myself in the faith expression of my church and let the consumer culture carry on without me. I also know that as long as the faith tradition continues, even if it is an alternate way, it is there available to anyone who wants to step off the secular track and into the faith celebration.

  • Agreed. It would be great to see more tasteful music and entertainment in general in our society – this time of year accents how shallow our music and pop culture is. In light of that I do love watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special on network TV where all the kids get together at the end of the story and sing ‘Hark! the Herald Angels Sing’.

    It seems that every time I turn on a 24-hour cable news channel, or listen to canned music at a shopping mall, I cannot help but to think about the babel of this world versus humble elegance of the gospel.

  • I don’t get bothered by the music anymore, mainly because of your last point: the real idolatry of this season is consumerism.

    It seems to me that the only arena in which the discussion of secular v religious Christmas music comes up is in the consumer arena. I don’t know that I want to see the true meaning of Christmas defined by what music the shops play. If we want to argue over “merry Christmas” or “seasons Greetings”; over Santa Claus or Jesus – then let’s make that argument at the children’s homes and the soup kitchens, at the homeless shelters and the prisons.

    If we fight to attach jesus to the shops and pavilions I think we’ve already lost. I’d much rather see this battle waged by those who are demonstrating what it is to be the hands and feet of Christ, than those glutting themselves on products and purchases while singing “Oh come let us adore him”

    • Steve Dal

      Agree entirely. I have seen too many Christmases now to ever think somehow our consumer society will suddenly ‘see the light’ and change direction.

  • J.E. Edwards

    I’m not big on the guy in the red hat, either. Nor do I wish to defend secular Christmas music, but I would think that Santa is somehow supposed to represent the “spirit” of Christmas. Every time I see the movie “The Polar Express”, it kind of gives me the creeps how the elves seem to almost worship Santa. (Don’t get me wrong, the movie effects are spectacular) As a believer, I too, see anything that leads my thinking away from the incarnation of Jesus as not beneficial to the celebration of His birth.

    • JoFro

      That movie is just creepy and I don’t particularly care about the effects either!

  • “Please tell the manager that I’m a customer, too, and I’m offended that the store plays only secular “Christmas” music.”

    – HERE HERE!!! (or is it “hear hear”?)

    • rogereolson

      There’s some debate about which it should be. There are good arguments for both. But I think the origin of the exclamation is British parliament where members shouted that their representative should be listened to and his or her message heeded.

      • Beakerj

        As a Brit I can confirm we say ‘hear hear’. I don’t know the source but suspect Roger is right.

      • Percival

        But why do we say “there, there” to comfort someone?

        I’ve stopped saying that Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Christ. That’s true for a lot of people, but I think as believers we should sharpen our focus. I tell my Muslim friends here that actually we celebrate the Word made flesh, the incarnation.

      • James Petticrew

        Apparently developed at WESTMINSTER as “hear, hear” as a form of affirmation of what is being said because on most occasions applauding by MPs is not allowed

  • Joseph O.

    The Salvation Army bells have begun to ring. I passed a man representing the Salvation Army and he told me Happy Holidays. I know he was probably just being sensitive to non-Christians, but it really sounded hollow. I wonder if there will be a time when we just won’t hear a “Merry Christmas” anymore at all in any public sphere. There would be something tragic about that…

    • rogereolson

      I agree, but the Hauerwasian voice in my head tells me to get over it.

  • Craig Wright

    In this season of thankfulness and giving, I would like to thank you, Roger, for your generosity in providing access to the scholarship and current thinking of an important theologian. You even respond. It has been a great help for me to keep current and to continue shaping my own thinking. Technology is amazing and I appreciate that you have entered into that world to reach many people in a different manner than just in the classroom or through books. Several other scholars, such as Scot McKnight and Peter Enns have also been contributing. Thank you.

    • rogereolson

      Thank you and you’re welcome!

  • It’s true that originally Christmas and Easter were pagan holidays until the Christian church subsumed and baptized them. Isn’t that what Christ came to accomplish? He slowly transforms society by giving new meaning to all the faulty concoctions of human thought and practice. The so-called gods of the old pagan holidays have long-since been forgotten; whereas the name and fame of Jesus the Christ is the best known, best loved, most respected name on earth today.

    Is there too much consumerism? Sure, but it’s not the fault of paganism. If anyone is to be blamed it’s the professing Christians who are demanding ‘Black Friday.’ Is it a big deal with God how much of your money you spend at the mall over the religious holidays? I don’t think so! As far as I’m concerned, they can start playing Christmas music at the malls in July. I’m still not going to stand in those long Black Friday lines no matter how much they discount their 100 inch TV sets.

  • Jeff Martin

    It is odd that other Christian’s arguments are “Let them have the holiday”. It has been my experience that for every one place I go to that plays only secular, another plays everything. There is no conspiracy going on where Santa has triumphed over Jesus. If you did not like the place playing only secular music then simply leave, though if you are only there for a short time, even leaving is extreme. It is not the music that should have alerted you to the secularization of America, it is the focus on individualism and greed that has been killing this country for a very long time.

  • C.S. Lewis’ satirical piece about Christmas vs. Xmas is a long time favorite of mine (you can Google the entire piece, “Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus”). Here is a brief sample about Xmas’ commercialism:

    “They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.”

  • My problem with Christmas is the way my fellow Christians over-assert their rights every time a Target employee says “Happy Holidays” or a radio station plays a “secular” Christmas tune. The problem is that God never told us to celebrate His Son’s birth, yet we treat it as if He did, and we become martyrs if our efforts to celebrate this man-made holiday are encumbered in any way. And that, my friends, is idolatry.

    • rogereolson

      In my opinion, that is stretching “idolatry” to the breaking point. The point is–there are all kinds of “holiday music” out there and most stores’ customers include Christians. Why do they exclude ONLY traditional Christmas music, that is, Christmas carols? To avoid offending anyone, of course. But don’t they realize that secularization is also offensive to many of their customers? Another example is the difficulty one encounters now finding religious-themed Christmas cards in many “big box” stores. Why? I personally do not think it’s because there’s no demand for them. I think it’s because someone high up in the stores’ chains of command simply want to secularize everything.

  • How about, just don’t bother getting offended? It’s not worth it. Play sacred Christmas music in your store all you want.

  • Steve Dal

    Actually, over the past ten years I can honestly say I have become sick of Christmas. I have spent the past number of Christmases out of the country and travelling and it is my intention to continue this practice. I just don’t know what to make of it all. I am ambivalent toward it.

  • Am I the only one who finds it ironic that St. Nicholas was a Christian who, though he has been caricatured over the centuries into something unrecognizable now, is now used by unbelievers to get our minds off of the birth of Jesus?

    • rogereolson

      I’m sure you’re not alone.

  • Steve

    As i am reading this article, i am listening to a CD i burned off of Itunes that contains both a mixture of religious and secular Christmas songs. Should i be ashamed to have a CD that includes some of the great hymns sung during Advent alongside Mariah Carey and Michael Buble’s ‘secular’ Christmas songs? Before i read the article, the CD put me in a good mood. Now, i am not sure what mood I am in. Me thinks that i’ll keep the CD and enjoy it and just guard against the sin of commercialism instead. Good reflection though. I do love the passion and the conviction with which you write your blog entries though. I can tell that you believe the Christian faith really ought to shape the way that we live our daily lives. I led a class two Thursday nights ago at our Men’s Bible/Book study and copied an old blog entry that you had written called, ‘The Sin of Conspicious Consumption.’ Most of the men thought that you had drawn too sharp a line in the sand in saying that Christians shouldn’t buy an expensive/fancy RV in their retirment years, but i actually defended most of what you had to say alongside the Spirit with which you said it. The fact that a vigorous discussion took place was more important for me than whether the men agreed with what you had written.

  • There is something to be said for co-opting secular practices. James K. A. Smith spoke of this when he spoke of how malls are co-opted by seniors who use them in new ways ie., walking around for exercise. I think this is what Mouw is getting at in this article: “”