20 December 2005

War on Christmas

Hendrik Hertzberg probably ought to be given some sort of award for smugness. His article debunking the "War on Christmas" follows a fairly standard line of self-satisfied pseudo-reasoning--all those right-wingers who are complaining about the secularization of Christmas are just the most recent in a long line of people who complain about the how Christmas is under attack by the secular world. He puts up a few straw men—Henry Ford, the anti-Semite, and Bill O'Reilly, his own worst enemy—slaps a gloss of unsubstantiated historial reference on it and calls the typesetter. I got to this sentence here, "Just as Christmas itself evolved as a way to synthesize a variety of winter festivals, so the War on Christmas fantasy is a way of grouping together a variety of enemies, where they can all be rhetorically machine-gunned at once," when I realized that he was full of it.

What really bothers me about Hertzberg's article is—obviously—the sentence I have highlighted above. That on the one hand he poo-poos the self-appointed culture warriors for their unwarranted counter-attack while subtly undercutting the Christmas celebration. What absolute rot! (Frankly, I'd use stronger language, but my mother reads this blog.) Christmas was not a convenient way to celebrate a whole bunch of "winter festivals." No celebration based on such a notion would have persisted over 1700 years nor would it explain why Hannukah and New Years are still celebrated more or less concurrently. The origins of Christmas lie solely with the Church and not with any attempt to justify any pagan holidays. Not that it would matter if they had. The point of Christmas would still have been to commemorate not merely the coming of Christ, but the specific way of his coming, which is what makes Christianity what it is, that the God-head came "veiled in flesh."

People probably are being a little too paranoid about the state of Christmas. It does not seem likely that it will cease to be celebrated any time soon. While the holiday is being subjected to a slow neutralization of its essential message ("good tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a savior who is Christ the Lord. ... Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, good will towards men"), I have no reason to think that this attempt to denature Christmas will succeed.

It does not, however, help the cause when Christian denominations of any stripe decide that Christmas is somehow an optional celebration, especially churches committed to evengelization, especially on one of the two days a year when they might expect to actually have non-Christians going to church. Such an action as these Churches who think that they do not need to have church on Christmas on a Sunday do lend credence to the appearance that Christmas is losing its focus.

On the other hand, it seems most people I know are planning to celebrate Christmas, people who 1) know full well what its "about," and 2) who do not believe what it is about. Friends of mine who are deeply athiestic have decorated their house more extravagantly than anyone else I know and have even set up a small creche in one corner (that they have deliberately set a small photograph of Elvis Presely behind it does not entirely negate their small acknowledgment of Christmas' real meaning). And while anecdotes may not count as hard proof, I even heard my local NPR affiliate (enemy of all things Christian) broadcasting a "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "Joy to the World" this evening in their full gender-essentialist and God-centered language.

I don't believe that the controversy that Christmas elicits is in fact overshadowing what Christmas is all about and its message of un-looked-for redemption. Because the controversy draws more attention to it in the first place, and second of all, because underneath it there is still a steady current carols, movies, books, trees, presents, decorations, and so on and so forth which continually emphasize the miracle which Christmas celebrates. If and when Christmas really does need someone to defend it tooth and nail, I hope it will be someone other than Bill O'Reilly.

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