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Christmas Wars & Conspiracies: Conflicts over the Meaning of Christmas Season

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What are the Christmas Wars?:

In his infamous tract "The International Jew," Henry Ford wrote "The whole record of the Jewish opposition to Christmas, Easter and other Christian festivals, and their opposition to certain patriotic songs, shows the venom and directness of [their] attack." The John Birch Society complained that the "Godless UN" was conspiring against Christmas. Today, conservatives claim that secularists and liberals are trying to replace Christmas. The enemy changes, but it's still the same conspiracy story.

'Happy Holidays' is an Anti-Christian Statement:

It is claimed that use of Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas excludes Christmas and is anti-Christian. This is nonsense. People use Happy Holidays to cover all holidays during the season, including Christmas. Christians who get upset over this aren't seeking tolerance or respect, they are seeking privilege and status. They want others to make them feel better about themselves by treating Christianity as special and more important than other religions.

Why Not Just Say Merry Christmas?:

If you say Merry Christmas, you assume that the other person celebrates Christmas - often a fair bet, but not as guaranteed as it once was. As the religious pluralism of America increases, so must the sensitivity of its citizens. The fewer traditional Christians there are around, the less people can assume that everyone is celebrating the usual Christian holidays and doing the usual Christian things. It's impolite to make assumptions about people you don't know.

Christmas: Religious or Secular Holiday?:

Many Christians complain that Christmas is a religious holiday, but is treated in an inappropriately secular way in contemporary America. This has some merit, but it's not the result of any conspiracy. Christians have been transforming it into a secular holiday by moving it out of churches and into the public, secular sphere. Pagan elements of Christmas have come to dominate its public celebration and Christian meaning has been lost.

Christmas as a Political Statement:

Many reactions to the decreasing importance of Christianity and Christmas are more tribal than religious. Some are turning the phrase Merry Christmas into a fetish, something done for its own sake instead of using it as a sincere greeting. It's an aggressive statement about one's own identity that is thrown in the face of others as a challenge or even an insult. It's not about defending religious meaning in Christmas, but defending a religious identity and a set of traditional privileges.

Religious Pluralism in America:

There is no plot among atheists and liberals to take Christ out of Christmas or to eliminate Christianity from the holiday season. The truth is that the growth of religious pluralism is behind the decline in importance of Christianity and, by extension, the religious aspects of Christmas. Fewer people, including Christians, see Christmas as a time for religious observance. The current status of Christmas is a natural outgrowth of how people (mostly Christians) behave.

Commercial Interests and Christmas as a Commercial Enterprise:

Christmas has become more of a commercial enterprise than a religious observance - the responsibility for which lies with Christians and the free market (which conservatives usually defend). Retailers must cater to a broad public, not just Christians, which means that exclusively Christian elements of the holiday season fade into the background while aspects which appeal to everyone (usually pagan or recent elements) grow in importance. Christmas is more about Santa than Jesus today.

Secularization vs. De-Christianization:

Complaints about the the status of Christmas in America often focus on the secularization of America and Christmas, and it's true that both have occurred. Lost in the rhetoric, however, is the fact that much of what is seen as secularization is really de-Christianization. The holiday season remains religious with many religions taking part, but it no longer exclusively Christian. It sounds better, though, to complain about secularization than about the loss of Christian privilege.

Christmas Wars and the Loss of Christian Privilege:

Conservatives' anger is due more to the fact that Christianity no longer dominates American culture; Christmas is simply an egregious example of this trend. The "right" they say they are losing is the "right" to dominate discourse, culture, government, and society. The loss of Christmas as the focus of the holiday season and the loss of public acknowledgment of the religious elements of Christmas represent the loss of Christian privilege occurring throughout American culture.

What is the Real Meaning of the Christmas Season?:

The most important issue behind the debates over Christmas is what the "meaning" of Christmas is or should be. Conservatives want to return to a Golden Age when the meaning of Christmas was wholly religious, uncorrupted by pagan, commercial, or secular elements. What they seek is an illusion. There are traditional meanings and religious meanings, but no "real meaning." The meaning of Christmas is whatever people celebrating decide to give to it.

Modern Christmas celebrations have little or nothing to do with Jesus, the Feast of the Nativity, or the Incarnation. Consider some popular Christmas traditions: erecting and decorating a tree, hanging wreaths, sending cards, drinking eggnog, giving presents, hanging mistletoe...where is Christ in all of this?

If people give it a religious meaning, it will be a religious holiday for them. If they fill the day with other meanings (gifts, family, etc.), then it will have those instead. Because the meaning of Christmas depends upon what people do with it, the only way for Christians to reclaim a religious meaning for Christmas is to personally eschew secular, pagan, and consumer activities in favor of religious ones. Give to the poor instead of to Wal-Mart. Go to church instead of a mall. Pray instead of gathering around a lit-up tree.

What they cannot do is insist that the wider culture endorse this and also shed pagan, commercial, or secular aspects of the season. They can't turn the tide of commercialization and secularization. They might convince individual Christians to turn away from it all and focus on religious aspects of a holy day, however. If enough Christians change, perhaps the culture will as well, but the focus should be on what Christians do as individuals.

Trying to force the culture to change by attacking greetings like Happy Holidays is silly. There is something profoundly wrong with the behavior of Christians using Christmas in their Culture War against modernity.

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