As the Archbishop of Canterbury has already pointed out, it is something of a cliché of modern life around this time of year for Christians, among others, to bemoan the commercialism and consumer culture that surrounds what is ostensibly a Christian holiday.
is of course a time of giving, as it has been since the Magi arrived to
see Jesus, complete with their kingly gold, priestly frankincense, and
morbid (but gloriously symbolic) myrrh.
Archbishop Justin Welby
compelled people in a speech to give generously, and out of a desire to
show affection rather than an attempt to buy it.
"Save up for the
Christmas budget, be sensible, don't put pressure on your finances –
don't make your life miserable with Christmas."
In this regard, the Archbishop is appealing to an angle that seeks to
make Christmas ultimately a more 'Christian' celebration. He admits
that his comments will likely do little to stem the tide of gleeful
shoppers and spenders, but remarks that it isn't the Christian part of
Christmas that's getting people into debt. So the question to ask is,
what does it really mean to have Jesus as the reason for the season?
On the one hand, there is the overt 'Christian-ness' of the season,
something which many secularists are moving to fight against.
become known as the 'war on Christmas', which has been battled in the
form of things like towns and cities re-naming their Christmas
celebrations 'Winterval' in recent years, and certain prominent shopping
chains and charities in places such as the US, Canada, the UK, and
South Africa dropping the word 'Christmas' from their literature and
replacing it with 'Holidays' or other alternatives.
Sarah Palin, the darling of the conservative Tea Party movement, is
the latest crusader to take up the fight against those seeking to
undermine Christmas's religious roots.
The former Republican Vice
Presidential candidate is touring the US, beginning in Bethlehem,
Pennsylvania, America's self-styled "Christmas City", promoting her new
book Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas.
Speaking to Newsmax, she said "Today, in too many respects, it's
politically incorrect to acknowledge that Jesus is the reason for the
season and Christ is the main part of Christmas… Those politically
correct police . . . tell us that we must boot Christ out of Christmas.
We're saying no, enough is enough of being intimidated."
It does seem though she is not merely tired of "angry athiests with
lawyers" who oppose nativity scenes and other such issues, but there is a
quite definite political edge here, with the other stops on her tour
mysteriously coinciding with congressional districts where centrist
Republicans look in danger of taking a challenge from the more radical
right of the party.
It will be objectionable to some no doubt that a woman whose party
has consistently stood up for monied interests should then go on to
stand up for keeping the 'Christian' values at the centre of Christmas.
Is that all that Christmas is, people will ask?
An invocation of Jesus's
name at a particular time? Remembering his birth on a day most likely
several months away from his actual birthday? What is so Christian about
But the whole cultural war Sarah Palin's fighting in is possibly a
disservice to the Christian cause at Christmas by focusing on the
superficial symbolism of the festive season at the expense of the
The curious thing about American Christians fighting the war on
Christmas is that they have a case, and yet they don't. On the one hand,
the war on Christmas isn't, at least in its current form, going to stop
a single individual from celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday
if they want to.
No laws have been passed limiting Christmas church
services (something that did happen under the oppressively puritanical
Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell), no protests have been organised to
stop religious organisations from holding carolling sessions or nativity
All church activities relating to Christmas are 100% permitted.
And yet on the other hand, there is a type of danger of a curious
form. When major forces in cultural propagation seek to marginalise or
otherwise obscure a particular aspect of a social phenomenon, you have
to ask firstly why, and second of all what that will mean.
ever come a time when, because of the pervasive and widespread
secularised form of Christmas, where gifts, Father Christmas, Christmas
Trees, Reindeer, and snow are all people see when mid-November arrives?
It would no doubt be a problem if a secularised form of Christmas was so
widespread that it obscured the religious one to the point that only
those with immediate contact with the faithful would hear of it.
anyway, why would people want that?
Many secularists argue that because the symbols associated with
Christmas are pre-Christian in origin, linking back instead to the pagan
peoples of non-Roman Scandinavia, this move is simply a natural
rebalancing now that Christianity has less cultural influence. But this
is hardly a reversion to paganism.
The secularist movement, when working
against Christian influence, isn't doing so in the name of solstice
celebrations or Druidic rights. That wouldn't make sense for secularism
anyway, since it would be just replacing one religion with another. It
would rather appear that they just don't like religion impacting on our
But the question is, why?
If secularists truly don't
believe in the power or importance of the word "Christ" or the person of
Jesus, what does it matter if his birth is celebrated widely towards
the end of the calendar year?
Can Christmas really just be, as many secularists seem to want it to
be, a time of gift giving and family togetherness? If so, why then? What
is holding the celebrations to this time of year? And what is anyone's
obligation? Simple social pressure? Isn't that a kind of sad state of
affairs? That people are only coming together to be nice to others
because everyone else is doing the same. What kind of holiday is that?
It's ultimately true that what it means to have Jesus as the reason
for the season is a combination of what Sarah Palin and Justin Welby are
talking about. Christmas isn't simply hollow invocation of Jesus's
name, and a determination to link his birth to a particular place and
time. Nor is it simply the act of giving gifts and being with family.
runs deeper than either, entwining both, and bringing them together to
give us something that God wants us to have all year round. The deep
abiding knowledge that his son came to Earth for each of us, and the
spirit of letting that knowledge inform our actions for the year to
come, and every year after.
That will definitely mean generosity, but
not always of the kind we practise at Christmas i.e. a generosity of
spirit and time, rather than money.