A few years ago I was walking through Woodfield Mall, the largest one in Illinois, just before Christmas. I was disappointed to see that Santa's grotto, where children waited in line for a brief one-on-one consultation with Mr. Claus, had been transformed into an enormous promotional display for the upcoming movie, Happy Feet.
Apparently the mall's managers were not bothered that Santa was difficult to see among the huge images of computer generated penguins, and clearly nobody was disturbed by the geographic discrepancy -- penguins only live at the South Pole and Santa resides at the North Pole. Sadder to me was the absence of the enormous Christmas tree that had stood at the center of the mall since my childhood. It appeared that Santa had sold his season, and his soul, to Warner Brothers Studios. I was comforted by the irony of the scene -- the character that had commercialized Christmas a century ago had fallen victim to his own devices.
Christians have always had a strained relationship with Saint Nick. Although his origins are rooted deeply in church lore, his association with the secularization of Christmas has made him a persona non grata in many churches and Christian communities. But many of us forget that Christmas itself is a holiday of dubious origin. For example, the Puritans were stridently opposed to the celebration of Christmas. They could find no biblical support for the holiday, and they believed (correctly) that it was originally a pagan festival now masquerading as Christian one. This view was widely held in America throughout the 19th century. In 1855, newspapers in New York reported that Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches would be closed on Christmas Day because "they do not accept the day as a Holy One." And by the 1860s only 18 states officially recognized the holiday.
Christmas only gained acceptance among a majority of Protestant Christians when it gained wide acceptance by the American public in general. And that can be attributed to the rise of Santa Claus in the secular pantheon. Old Saint Nick became a marketing juggernaut for retailers who by the 1920s had embraced Christmas as the premier season for shopping. Church leaders no longer objected to Christmas on the grounds that it was a pagan holiday. Instead their concerns shifted to the ungodly materialism and indulgence of desire they saw being promoted in the name of Christ.
The New York Times conducted a survey of Christmas sermons in 1931 and reported a common theme: "the suggestion that Christmas could not survive if Christ were thrust into the background by materialism." Another popular sermon of the period railed that Advent had become little more than a "profit-seeking period."
Sermons about the pagan origins of Christmas or the danger of rampant materialism in Christ's name are unlikely to be heard today. In recent years the dominant message heard from the Christian community during the holiday season has been precisely the opposite. Today, it seems many Christians are offended when unchecked materialism in December is not explicitly associated with Christ. The irony.
Since 2005, Fox News has deployed its minions to wage their war on the "War on Christmas," and the American Family Association has pushed for a boycott of stores for not using the words "Merry Christmas" in their seasonal marketing. Like many public institutions, some retailers opt to use the inclusive phrase "Happy Holidays" which these groups interpret as a slam to Jesus Christ- the real "reason for the season."
It amazes me that in less than a century Christians have gone from opposing over-consumption at Christmas to demanding it be done in Christ's name alone. The explanation may be in the numbers. Two-thirds of the U.S. economy is based on consumer spending, and 50-75 percent of most retailers annual profits are generated during December. This means the weeks before Christmas are the high holy days of consumerism. If Christians engaged the Advent season as they did in generations past, by modeling moderation and self-denial or by ignoring the holiday altogether, it would likely destroy (what remains of) the economy.
To ensure economic survival consumers are stirred into a buying frenzy every winter with the goal of making this year's shopping season more prosperous than the previous. Santa Claus has been the mascot of this manipulation since the early 20th Century, but if more Consumer Christians have their way the season of shopping would be inaugurated by the appearance of Jesus Christ at the end of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade instead.
Sadly, the "War on Christmas" and "Christmas Under Siege" campaigns pushed by some conservative Christians says more about the church's captivity to consumerism than its commitment to the love of Christ and their neighbors.
Follow Skye Jethani on Twitter: www.twitter.com/skye_jethani