Here's a thought experiment that might shed light (rather than heat) on our neuralgic national conversation about a certain holiday. Ready?
Imagine if the following happened to the social conventions surrounding Independence Day. First of all, imagine that any reference to what occurred on July 4, 1776 -- the Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers, the Continental Congress and all that stuff -- was no longer mentioned. Rather than calling it "Independence Day," businesses, government offices and other organizations would refer, out of decorum, to "The Fourth of July." Imagine further that references to American history were seen as not just passé but off-putting to those who had moved beyond the original meaning of the day. Imagine the Fourth of July as a pleasant mid-summer holiday focused mainly on fireworks and barbecues, with no mention of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams or George Washington.
What I've described is more or less what has happened to Christmas, at least in term of polite society. Of course, Independence Day is secular; Christmas is not, so it's an imperfect analogy. But it's still apt: in public discourse the holiday has been distanced from the holy day. The original reason businesses gave employees the day off -- to go to church -- has been set aside for a more general vacation day. Even Christians are moving closer to a day that's about, well, presents. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, not that there's anything wrong with gift-giving -- just like there's nothing wrong with fireworks and barbecues. But it's not what Christmas is "all about," to quote Linus van Pelt, one of the stars of "A Charlie Brown You-Know-What."
Marketers have few qualms about ignoring the holiday's religious past, while hijacking religious tropes to hawk their wares. The worst malefactor may be Macy's, whose risible slogan "Believe" (or "A Million Reasons to Believe") is splashed on their bright red shopping bags. The banal catch phrase both uses and rejects religion. Believe? In what? In the Incarnation of God? Nope. Macy's wants you to believe in one thing: spending
Or take J. Crew's online store, which offers a "Very Merry Gift Guide." Merry what? The guide features evergreen trees, glass ornaments and lots of red-and-green outfits to entice. What holiday might they be referring to? If you click long enough, you'll get an answer: Happy Shopping. An even cleverer ploy is taken by Loft, a division of Ann Taylor, the women's clothing store. Their motto: "Create your own holiday." Pace Don Draper, but I thought Christians already did that.
But you know this already. You've seen the endless TV commercials and web ads that wink at Christmas (red and green sweaters, evergreen trees, red and green ornaments, wreaths) without daring to mention "He Who Must Not Be Named." Christ may be the new Voldemort.
Face it: The war on Christmas is lost.
When did it end? Well, there won't be any official declaration of surrender from churches, so it's hard to pin down. There will be no C.E. Day (Christmas Ends.) But, in my mind, the war was decided this year. This year almost every major department story put up its red-and-green decorations the day after Halloween; most marketers had expunged references to the Christian feast in their generic ads; "Cyber Monday" became a definitive addition to the lexicon as one more day to consume, and several years had passed since "Black Friday" became not simply a day to shop for bargains, but a time when Americans expect stories of shoppers being trampled (sometimes to death) at 4 a.m.
This was also the year when many Christians I know, who still celebrate the Birth of Christ, began to dread the season, to the point where they asked themselves an uncomfortable question: Is the one day that is still (more or less) reserved for religion (Dec. 25) worth the two months that precede it?
Anyway, after years of battles, the war has ended. Madison Avenue has annexed the valuable territory between Halloween and New Year's Day. BBD&O, take a bow. J. Walter Thompson, step into the winner's circle. DDB, congrats.
Now, if you're not Christian, you might say "So what?" But if you are, you might notice some sad results.
For one thing, many Christians (and non-Christians) now feel completely overwhelmed with the demands of the consumerist holiday. Not news, you say? Well, the difference now is that the pressure to buy, decorate, spend, send, mail, bake, prepare, party and plan, which used to be confined to ads for a few weeks after Thanksgiving is now a two-month bacchanal in newspapers, television, radio, your mailbox, your smart phone, your email, and on the web. Anything digital (and what is not these days?) is an opportunity for an ad placement. The push to buy is everywhere and anytime. What has changed is the omnipresence of the consumerist offensive.
One of the war's hidden casualties has been the ability of religious people to resist the commercialism and keep the day holy. The one who decides not to engage in an orgy of gift-giving, who eschews two months of bargain hunting, may feel like a spoilsport. You're not buying gifts? You're not sending cards? You're skipping parties? Scrooge.
All this has started to affect even devout Christians. In Catholic circles, for example, Dec. 24 is slowly becoming the more popular time to attend Mass. Traditionally, Catholic parishes have celebrated "Midnight Mass," at 12:00 on Christmas Eve. But gradually parishes moved their "Midnight Masses" back to 10, then to 8, then to 7, and now to 4. Sometime they are as early as 3 PM. While many Catholics prefer these services for good reasons (more time with their families; a boon to the elderly and small children) the net result may turn out to be the desacralization of Dec. 25. Is Christmas Day becoming a day centered not on religious services, but on presents? Once again, not that there's anything wrong with giving gifts, like there's nothing wrong with fireworks and barbecues, but again, it's not the point. To use our Independence Day analogy, George Washington didn't slog through winter at Valley Forge so that we could scarf down hamburgers. Did God become human so that we could get new sweaters?
So what's a Christian to do?
For one thing, surrender. Stop fighting. Enough with the embarrassing and endless "War on Christmas." It's embarrassing because we've lost. It's a waste of time because corporations have more financial firepower than churches, and the consumerism will only to get worse. Get ready for Santa to show up around Labor Day. (You laugh now; you won't in a few years.) Can't fight City Hall? Much less can you fight Madison Avenue -- which has more money than City Hall. Give it up.
But, post-war, all is not lost. My advice is to go underground: engage in some nonviolent protest and some passive resistance to the new regime. Keep Christmas holy in your heart. Read the Scriptures. Sleep late next year on Black Friday. Refrain from buying stuff that no one needs. Tell everyone else not to buy you so much stuff. Spend less. Turn off QVC and turn on a CD of Christmas hymns. Don't even open those emails from J. Crew and Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean. Send cards not to 100 people, but 10. Pray more. Buy fewer gifts for fewer people. Set a limit on visiting department stores. Remember that Macy's can't tell you what to believe in. Cut back on the holiday parties. Stop eating so many cookies. Don't get sucked into the craziness.
In short, resist, ignore or avoid the superfluous stuff that has little to do with Christmas. To use our Fourth of July analogy, it's all just fireworks and barbecues.
Remember instead, in your heart, the birthday of the person who won you lasting freedom: Jesus. So Happy Independence Day. And Merry Christmas.
James Martin, SJ is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America and author of
The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and My Life with the Saints.