Will Christmas Become Irrelevant?
American attitudes toward Christmas as a religious holiday are changing. Here's why they shouldn't.
The Pew Research Center recently released data revealing changing attitudes toward Christmas as a religious holiday. While 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas, only 46% consider it a primarily religious holiday (down from 51% in 2013). As the secular aspects of Christmas begin to replace its sacred origins, will Christmas eventually become irrelevant?
To answer this question, we should examine the contributing factors in this decline: the law and literary culture.
In terms of the law, those who attempt to legally sterilize Christmas from its religious origins perhaps contribute the most to its growing irrelevancy. Misappropriating “separation of church and state” and ignoring the “free exercise” clause, legal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have forced communities to take down a cross from a Christmas tree, cease performing live nativities, stop religious Christmas carols and even attempted to prohibit children from passing out candy canes with religious explanations of Christmas.
Interestingly, the “War on Christmas” uniquely applies to Christianity. There have been few successful efforts to remove menorahs from public Hanukkah celebrations. Nor has there been a push to transform Ramadan into a holiday appealing to people of “all faiths.” Why? Because to take Judaism out of Hanukkah or to take Islam out of Ramadan makes the holiday meaningless. The legal assault on religious connotations of Christmas has been an attempt to render it a meaningless month of stress, overspending and overeating, bolstered by “tradition for tradition’s sake.”
In addition to the legal aspect, consider also the changing literary trends regarding the “meaning” of Christmas. The term Christmas originated from “Cristes Maesse,” the late Old English term for “The Mass of Christ.” This mass celebrated the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ as a baby born in Bethlehem who lived a sacrificial life as the atonement for sin. The feast of Christmas originally and still celebrates the generosity of God to the human race.
Later, the legend of St. Nicholas emerged from the life of a bishop born in Patara (modern day Turkey) in the third century AD. When his parents both died during an epidemic, St. Nicholas inherited a great fortune, which, following the words of Jesus, he sold and gave to the poor. Later, he became a bishop and though imprisoned for his faith for a time, St. Nicholas continued to live a generous life in heart and spirit. The legends of his generosity include the story of three young girls, whose poverty and lack of a dowry would have prevented a good marriage and most likely would have meant being sold as slaves. Mysteriously, three bags of gold were tossed through the window, landing in the socks and shoes that had been placed there to dry. Thus began the legend of what the Dutch called Sint Nikolaas, or Sinterklass for short. Sinterklass became known in English as “Santa Clause.”
In the 19th century, the literature of Charles Dickens began affirming the “Christmas Spirit” of goodwill toward others. In 1843, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, the story of a miser named Scrooge whose visits by three ghosts cause him to change his ways and to be charitable to his fellow man and to “honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.”
Dr. Seuss’ classic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957), follows a similar storyline of a grumpy creature turned kind. Eventually, the Grinch comes to understand that “maybe Christmas … doesn’t come from a store! Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
However, contrast these stories with the words of Greg Lake’s 1974 song (given more recent attention due to recordings by Susan Boyle and Sarah Brightman). His song, “I Believe in Father Christmas,” articulates the death of belief in both the fiction and facts of Christmas.
They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
‘Till I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in Father Christmas
And I looked to the sky with excited eyes
'Till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise.
The song ends with this melancholy line:
Hallelujah, Noel be it heaven or hell
The Christmas we get we deserve.
Christmas began as the biblical account of God’s generosity in sending Jesus Christ. Through the years, cultures have also celebrated the legendary generosity of St. Nicholas. “Christmas Spirit” later began to mean the gifts of kindness and charity granted to Scrooge and the Grinch. Greg Lake’s cynical and disenchanted view reveals a major attitude shift toward both the religious and cultural aspects of Christmas.
Yet acknowledging Christmas as the “Christ Mass” gives understanding to the true meaning behind St. Nick’s generosity and the Santa Clause legend. It sheds light upon the “Christmas Spirit” implicated in Scrooge and the Grinch’s transformation. It even gives meaning to the disenchanted and grants purpose to the traditions we continue to experience. The generosity of God in sending Jesus Christ illuminates all the pieces of Christmas from fact to fiction.
The legal attempt to sterilize Christmas of its religious meaning combined with the literary and cultural concepts of a “secular” Christmas could lead some to believe that Christmas will one day become irrelevant. Yet Christmas will only become irrelevant to those who strip it from a “holy day” to simply a “holiday.” It will continue to be relevant to those who honor the Christ in Christmas and seek to replicate the generosity of God in their celebrations and traditions.