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War Against Christmas 2009: Christians Against Christmas?
Recently, at the kind invitation of Chronicles editor Thomas Fleming, I wrote a piece for the magazine's website explaining why I believe it is important to resist the War against Christmas. I also touched upon the reemergence in 2009 of Christian hostility—not just fashionable "Happy Holiday" foolishness—to Christmas. I want to expand on that theme here.
Christian hostility to Christmas first found expression with the Puritans. They began by objecting to the merriment and revelry traditionally associated with the feast, then objected to what they saw as its "pagan" and "popish" origins, and then to the whole thing, banning the celebration of Christmas in England and parts of America.
Today, some American Christians are beginning to tread the same path as the Puritans, even if their theologies are quite different. They are so disaffected from some aspects of the American Christmas that they are, at best, unwilling to defend it and, at worst, eager to join the Christophobes' War Against Christmas.
Of course, the multiculturalism that has been a hallmark of the modern War against Christmas has also been embraced by far too many Christian clergy and institutions. Just one example of this: an e-mail my wife recently received from her alma mater, an institution founded by Methodists. It wished her "Happy Holidays" and made no mention of the holiday for which Charles Wesley, the brother of Methodism's founder, wrote one of the most famous hymns, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Similar examples, alas, are all too easy to find.
Also common are complaints against Christmas consumerism. These are not new and make some sense: many people no doubt spend too much time, money, and energy at the mall at this time of year. But these complaints can also be taken too far. Much gift giving is in fact the product of generosity, not mindless consumerism. The same generous impulse also finds expression in the donation of much money, time, and effort to countless charities at this time of year, when Americans are, thanks to Christmas, more likely to think of the needs of others. (VDARE.COM note: including us!)
TIME magazine recently carried a laudatory story on "The Advent Conspiracy", a loose association of Christian ministers urging their congregants to spend less money at the mall and to give more to charity. Church Group Attacks Christmas Commercialism, By Amy Sullivan, December 15, 2009] Nothing objectionable there. But the reasons for TIME's praise were easy to discern. One of the movement's leaders, pastor Rick McKinley, [Email him]is quoted as saying of his group, "None of us like Christmas". Amy Sullivan's message seems to be this: if even Christian ministers don't like Christmas, how can anyone legitimately object to its suppression?
McKinley also told TIME:
"Christians get all bent out of shape over the fact that someone didn't say 'Merry Christmas' when I walked into the store. But why are we expecting the store to tell our story? That's just ridiculous."
Of course, Pastor McKinley misses the point: no one is expecting retailers to tell the story of Christmas—a function they have never had. But what we can expect is that retailers at least have the courtesy to acknowledge the festival to which they owe their good fortune, and to not treat the name of that holiday as a profanity, something to avoid mentioning.
In addition, as I noted in 2005, when Americans were free publically to celebrate Christmas, both store employees and customers felt some need, or at least some pressure, to live up to the "Christmas spirit", a concept much discussed in my youth, involving "peace on earth, good will to men". Now that Americans too often publically celebrate an unnamed "holiday" instead, there is no felt need to live up to a nonexistent "holiday spirit". This means that the commercialism that has long been part of the American Christmas will be, if the War against Christmas succeeds, all that remains of it—the nicer elements having been jettisoned because they are too closely associated with the Nativity.
Thus the naked commercialism to which the Advent Conspiracy's McKinley objects, and which some urge as a reason for the further suppression of Christmas, is actually enhanced as a consequence of the War Against Christmas.
Then there is the fact that the American Christmas celebration does not coincide with the liturgical calendar, with many concerts, plays, and parties taking place during Advent. I have heard from people I think of as "Advent fundamentalists", who chide me for caring about the fate of traditional observances of the American Christmas that take place while the Catholic Church, to which I belong, is observing Advent.
It is one thing to urge a deeper appreciation of Advent as a time for spiritual preparation for Christmas, a sentiment with which I agree. But it is quite another to counsel passivity in the War against Christmas just because the American Christmas, like the rest of American life, fails to follow the liturgical calendar.
I also wonder what the Advent fundamentalists would say to the Pope, who puts up the giant Christmas tree in St. Peter's square during Advent, or my Jesuit high school alma mater, which holds a wonderful Christmas concert every year during Advent with the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall, attended this year by both the current and former bishops of Cleveland—not to mention the countless other parochial schools that hold Christmas concerts during Advent for the good reason that their students are gone from school during what used to be universally known as "Christmas Break" and is now too often called "Winter Break" or the like.
A prime example of where Christian disaffection with the American Christmas can lead was provided this year by Eastern Orthodox convert Jason Peters, a Professor of English at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. His article at the Alternative Right Front Porch Republic website, "For Gawd's Sake Avoid Cherch this Krustmas", was approvingly linked to by Atlantic Magazine blogger Heather Horn, who headlined her summary On the 2nd Day of Krustmas, Everyone Was Impotent and told her readers that Peters' complaint was against "tacky, Jesus-loving Christians' attempt to re-take Christmas".
Of course, the fact that American Christians willing to attack Christmas can be assured of favorable treatment at MSM outlets like the Atlantic and Time is itself just another manifestation of the War against Christmas.
Unfortunately, Horn's Atlantic description of Peters' article is all too accurate. Peters admits his "disaffection with Christmas", and calls the holiday "Krustmas" because he regards American evangelical Protestants not as fellow Christians, but "Krustians"—adherents of a new faith Peters terms "Krustianity".
Since American Protestants were more or less responsible for the creation of America, one might think they should be cut a little slack. But that's not how Peters sees things.
Interestingly, Peters' dismissal of other American Christians is not limited to Protestants. He has described many Eastern Orthodox parishes as "ethnic ghettos, custodians of a culture and language rather than caretakers of Word and Sacrament."
Needless to say, Peters is ostentatiously indifferent to the War On Christmas. He even dismisses attempts to "put Christ back in Christmas", a goal of the Knights of Columbus for decades. His disdain for the American Christmas is comprehensive: his short article contains sarcastic references to gift giving, A Christmas Carol (the creation of an Englishman but much beloved in America) and A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Do You Hear What I Hear?, and O Little Town of Bethlehem, all creations of Americans.
It is true that there are tacky Christmas songs and Christmas decorations. But many of these are an attempt to convey something positive, if only jollity. Moreover, such things have always been a part of Christmas. As Joel Cohen writes in the liner notes for his Boston Camerata's exquisite recording of A Renaissance Christmas:
"The Christmas feast is, was, and probably always will be most 'popular' of the Christian holidays, the moment of reconciliation between high theological mystery and low-down revelry. From the raucous Christmas songs of twelfth-century Beauvais to the piped-in December muzak of our department stores and supermarkets, part of the seasonal spirit has always insisted on immediate, broad-based appeal".
But this need for "immediate, broad-based appeal" does not tell the whole story: in Cohen's words, "At Christmas . . . . Our humblest and noblest parts move together towards the Truth which lies beyond us, yet which, at moments, does come near". And did, at Christmas, become man.
Peters will have none of that: he dismisses even Silent Night as "sentimental schlock." One wonders how Peters would have reacted if he had been in the trenches on the Western Front at Christmas 1914, where a common love for that carol, one of the few known to both British and German troops, helped those men recognize their common humanity, helping to create a spontaneous truce that came closer to ending the insane bloodbath of World War I than anything until the Armistice, some millions of dead later.
But Peters' disaffection from Christmas goes even deeper than his disdain for a song that has been translated more—into some 300 languages and dialects—than any other. He also scorns evangelical attempts to "reenact the nativity, complete with hay and oxen and asses". One wonders how Peters would have reacted the first time an attempt was made to reenact the Nativity, "complete with hay and oxen and asses", in Italy in 1223:
"Now three years before his death it befell that he was minded, at the town of Greccio, to celebrate the memory of the Birth of the Child Jesus, with all the added solemnity that he might, for the kindling of devotion. That this might not seem an innovation, he sought and obtained licence from the Supreme Pontiff, and then made ready a manger, and bade hay, together with an ox and ass, be brought unto the place. The Brethren were called together, the folk assembled, the wood echoed with their voices, and that august night was made radiant and solemn with many bright lights, and with tuneful and sonorous praises. The man of God, filled with tender love, stood before the manger, bathed in tears, and overflowing with joy. Solemn Masses were celebrated over the manger, Francis, the Levite of Christ, chanting the Holy Gospel. Then he preached unto the folk standing round the Birth of the King in poverty, calling Him, when he wished to name Him, the Child of Bethlehem, by reason of his tender love for Him. A certain knight, valorous and true, Messer John of Greccio . . . declared that he beheld a little Child right fair to see sleeping in the manger, Who seemed awakened from sleep when the blessed Father Francis embraced him in both arms."[The Franciscan poets in Italy of the thirteenth century (1914)]
From Saint Francis of Assisi's decision to bring "hay and oxen and asses" into the church in Greccio came the tradition of the crèche as well as the tradition of the Nativity play. Both used to be common even in public squares and public schools in America—until ravaged by the War against Christmas.
(Unlike Peters, I have always been charmed by the fact that, owing to the enduring popularity of Francis' example, Christmas is the one time of year many Protestant churches enjoy the sort of religious statuary we Catholics enjoy year round. Indeed, Christmas marks a time of great practical ecumenism in America. Many Protestant congregations sing Silent Night and O Come, All Ye Faithful, written by an Austrian priest and an English Catholic, and many Catholic congregations singing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Joy to the World, written by two great Protestant masters of hymnody).
But the import of Francis' example may be deeper still. Thomas Cahill argues that, because of Francis' insistence on realism in his attempt to reenact the Nativity, "In the town of Greccio on Christmas night in 1223 were born the arts as we still know them".
Peters' scorn for such central Christmas traditions as reenactments of the Nativity suggests disaffection from more than Christmas. Coupled with his obvious disdain for suburbia and Middle America, it suggests disaffection from the U.S. and the West as well.
Which is not surprising. Christmas has been the central feast of the West since the early Middle Ages. Those who are at war with Christmas are also at war with the West.
This point was brought home by one of the commenters on my Chronicles piece, Steve Berg. He first really enjoyed Christmas, he wrote, in 1969, his second year serving in Vietnam. On Christmas Eve that year, Berg had dinner with a local Vietnamese family, and later helped his unit share Christmas packages from home and an unexpectedly large beer ration with neighboring units who were invited over even though
"they had nothing to add to the festivities. . . .Later that night, the word went round to our bunkers that we should fire a parachute flare at midnight, which was against regulations, but so what. At the appointed time, we all launched our flare rockets, and they arched up and lit up the entire hill with a ghostly white light. They illuminated the hill, the jungle, and the Montagnard huts, and it is the most beautiful and bizarre Christmas scene I have ever seen. I will never forget that."
Those who view Christmas as the Puritans did, or who are disaffected from America and the West, will be puzzled or disgusted by the way those Americans stuck in Vietnam in 1969 celebrated Christmas. The rest of us understand and approve. Most Americans have fond memories of at least some past Christmases, and those memories deserve respect, not mockery.
"We have a long way to go in restoring Christmas to what it once was in this country, but we have made great progress since people came to realize that there is indeed a War against Christmas and began resisting. This is a fight worth fighting and a fight worth winning."