Christmas culture wars

Concern that Christmas is anything from too religious to too commercial exposes America’s troubled soul.

Christmas in the United States is plagued by doubt. Is it about brotherly love or presents? Is it secular or religious? Is it even right to celebrate such a blatantly Western holiday in a diverse society? The angst and defensiveness about Christmas provides an annual snap-shot of the nation’s troubled soul. This year it is at its most vivid in Olympia, Washington where the annual holiday display has got totally out of control.

This year the display features a Christmas tree, a nativity scene, a menorah, and an atheist sign from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. There are also applications to display a ‘festivus’ pole, a ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’ and a display from the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas that begins with cheery sentence ‘Santa will send you to Hell’, and goes on to explain that Santa is a child molester responsible for the deaths of many US troops!? How did it all go so horribly wrong?

In a nation in which the separation of church and state is enshrined in law, the public celebration of Christmas has always posed something of a problem. For years the compromise went something like this: Santa, reindeer, trees: ‘okay’; nativity scenes: ‘not okay’. Over the past decade however, even the most secular symbols of Christmas have come under attack. In 2005, in a move strangely reminiscent of the Bush doctrine, schools in Maplewood, New Jersey, premptively banned red and green decorations from school and cancelled school outings to see a performance of A Christmas Carol. You know, just in case students were offended but too intimidated by the dominant culture to express the hidden outrage burning in their hearts. Imbuing secular symbols of Christmas with more cultural significance than they probably deserved led, almost inevitably, to a situation in which different groups really would take offence.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions (or possibly pictures of Santa).  In response to the utter churlishness of banning all celebration, some regional governments tried to compromise by adopting an inclusive approach. This was Washington State’s mistake. In 2006, it included a menorah with its holiday decorations. This prompted Christian real estate agent Ron Wesselius to request to display the nativity scene and then to sue when officials refused his request. In 2007, the nativity scene was duly included with the menorah and the Christmas trees.

This inspired the atheist Freedom From Religion Foundation to display a sign this year reading ‘At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail/There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell/There is only our natural world/Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.’ The sign’s theft and subsequent reappearance in front of a local country and western radio station attracted national attention and opened the floodgates to dozens of requests for bizarre holiday displays. Not surprisingly, state officials have called a moratorium on further additions this year. Pity the poor bureaucrat charged with organising next year’s ‘festivities’.

Yet this is not a straightforward question of separating Church and state. Every year, defenders of Christmas argue compellingly that Christmas is not an exclusively Christian holiday, that it goes back to the Roman feast of Saturnalia, that Pope Liberius only added the nativity to the Christian calendar in 354 CE as a way to Christianise ancient pagan festivals for the newly converted. The history of Christmas is fascinating, but all this rather misses the point. Critics of Christmas aren’t so much interested in the nature of the holiday itself but how their orientation to it differentiates them from other people.

There was a time in the United States when Christmas played a very different role. It brought people together and did so without any great effort. It was just a normal part of American life. Many of the secular cultural symbols we associate with Christmas are American creations. For instance, the American writer George Pintard added reindeer to Santa’s sleigh in 1821 and Clement Clarke Moore raised the number to eight in his classic poem ‘A Visit From St Nicholas’. Our modern, bearded fat man with his fur-lined suit was the creation of the cartoonist, Thomas Nast, and Santa’s suit is red because the Coca-Cola Company showed it this way in its advertisements. The classic Christmas songs, ‘White Christmas’, ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’, and ‘Silver Bells’ were all written by American composers, who also happened to be Jewish. Indeed, the holiday was celebrated by many Jews and Christians alike, by the native born and by immigrants, all of whom adopted American customs and added some of their own. The holiday even created a Christmas tradition for Jews who didn’t celebrate it, namely going out for Chinese food and a movie on Christmas Day.

To the extent that Christmas was at all controversial it was because of its runaway commercialism. Fueled by the post war boom, it became primarily a holiday about gift-giving. Many a flustered parent in the 1950s and 60s lamented the appearance of Christmas decorations and television adverts for the latest toys as early as Thanksgiving (they now appear in late September). Dr Seuss’s classic book, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas was both a response to this concern and defence of the holiday with his suggestion that ‘Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store.’

For all these reasons the so-called Christmas culture war should be understood for what it really is, not a question of competing religious traditions or of a secular versus a religious Christmas but of the inability of American society to hold its cultural traditions together.

So what role does Christmas play in American life? How Christmas is celebrated or indeed whether it is celebrated has become an important statement about identity.

For instance, many conservative Christians are critical of the secular aspects of the celebration, what they call ‘the worship of Santa’. Although most do not think Santa will take you to hell, they certainly find the gift-giving and secular symbolism at odds with their understanding of the holiday. For others, secular Christmas feeds an oddly satisfying perception that they are under siege by the cultural elite, Christians persecuted once more.

If celebrating Christmas defines a certain Christianness, for many not celebrating it defines Jewishness. Many Jews, even those who grew up celebrating the holiday, do not do so now because it isn’t seen as a very Jewish thing to do. In other words not celebrating has become a key way of expressing Jewish identity. Atheists want literally to take the Christ out of Christmas. Some even aspire to take the make-believe out of it by skipping Santa Claus all together. Multiculturalists would rather Christmas was far more low-key and accorded the same importance as holidays like Kwanza or Diwali. Anti-consumerists hate the gift-giving and environmentalists, with their unfailing instincts for inculcating guilt and despair, revel in exposing the horrors of toxic toys, the excess of so-called ‘food’ and the worthiness of potted trees, hand-crafted wooden toys from Vermont and free-range turkey.

Of course not everyone has the time, the interest or the inclination to think deeply about Christmas. The vast majority of Americans do celebrate the season with family and friends but there is an inescapable sense of defensiveness. Christians wonder aloud if they should take their non-Christian friends off their Christmas card lists for fear of offending them. Public events advertise the appearance of the ‘Holiday Man’ (Santa) and schools send children off for ‘Winter break’ (as opposed to the other winter break that takes place in February). A heart-felt ‘merry Christmas’ to co-workers is likely to be followed by a look of stricken uncertainty.

The truth is, Christmas has always embodied a contradiction. It expresses a universal aspiration for peace on earth and goodwill to all but is firmly rooted in the sights and sounds and tastes of the sensuous world. Christmases are also the great milestones in our lives and the crescendo of our year an ending and a new beginning. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, Americans, too, are haunted by what was, what is and what may yet be.

And yet, every year as the day approaches, something inexplicable changes. There’s a certain fondness and lightness of heart as people say farewell to one another for the last time of the year. It’s then that Christmas transcends the holiday. As Theodor Geisel, aka Dr Seuss, so aptly put it, ‘Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!’

Nancy McDermott is a writer based in New York.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume introduced the new Eco-nezer Scrooges. Lee Jones found a grinch who stole Christmas cards in Wales. Josie Appleton said there’s no ‘war on Christmas’ from without – only a lack of belief within. spiked crowned Gordon Brown King of the Killjoys. Or read more at spiked issue Christmas.

 

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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