Attacks on Christmas originate most often from the secular left but this year journalists have begun highlighting Yuletide criticism from disgruntled commentators on the religious right. These simultaneous assaults from both edges of the philosophical spectrum suggest that the sensible, middle-of-the-road approach to the holiday-- with its emphasis on jolly, joyous and distinctively American traditions-- remains worth cherishing and defending.
In USA TODAY, religion reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman filed a story under the headline “Where is Christ in Christmas?” and the newspaper illustrated it with a moonlit image of Santa on a rooftop, planting a giant cross in the chimney. The article cites the work of Michael Horton, professor of theology at Westminster Seminary in California, who suggests that “Christmas without the specter of the cross, without awareness that this is a baby born to die for mankind’s sins, is a fancied up fraud.” Professor Horton warns that “Santa becomes a substitute for Christ. He’ll give you presents whether you were good or bad. It’s hard to imagine Santa returning to judge the human race and consign anyone to hell. But that is what Jesus came to save us from.”
Of course, most Americans prefer to spend their December decorating trees, sipping eggnog and exchanging beautifully wrapped gifts rather than focusing on the particulars of eternal damnation. For some serious Christians, however, all the tinsel-trimmed traditions have begun to obscure the true meaning of the holiday. “The focus on peace and giving gifts allows you to safely focus on nice things instead of the idea that God sent his son Jesus to be Christ, who dies on a cross,” says Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research in Nashville. “It’s human nature to want to take the ‘nice’ without the ‘truth.’”
These recent denunciations of a “Christless Christmas” (the title of Professor Horton’s book is “Christless Christianity”) echo the concerns of prominent American religious leaders over the course of nearly four hundred years. The Puritans who settled New England frowned on the “pagan” frivolity of the Christmas holiday, particularly on the seventeenth century excesses of eating and drinking as practiced by the Anglican population in the Southern colonies. In more recent years, many pastors have expressed growing concern that the holiday now concentrates on Santa rather than Jesus. This month, the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas (the same charming outfit that chants anti-gay slogans at the funerals of fallen heroes from Iraq) tried to post a Santa-bashing poem at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia. Sung to the tune of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” their new offering, “Santa Claus Will Take You to Hell,” featured the lyrics—
You’d better watch out, get ready to cry
You better go hide, I’m telling you why
‘Cuz Santa Claus will take you to hell.
He is your favorite idol
You worship at his feet
But when you stand before your God
He won’t help you take the heat.
Even those with less extreme reservations about Kris Kringle worry that the ubiquitous stories about the Jolly Old Elf might ultimately undermine faith in God. According to this argument, children who discover that their parents have lied to them about Santa will naturally begin to wonder whether they’ve been similarly deceived when it comes to lessons about God and Christ. New research, however, from the Universite’ de Montreal and the University of Ottawa (reported by Tony Woodlief in the Wall Street Journal) indicates that most children suffer no serious psychological or emotional damage from their discovery that Santa Claus is a myth, and that kids who once believed in St. Nick are at least as likely to grow up firmly believing in God as their counterparts who never expected chimney drops and magic reindeer.
By the same token, there’s little reason to suggest that the public, celebratory approach to the season has worked against serious religious commitment in the long run. Many (if not most) of the Christmas traditions now embraced around the world either originated or developed in the United States – including the details of Santa’s yearly visits, the practice of sending out holiday cards, big public lighting displays, lavish department store decorations, and much more. The majority of carols and other holiday favorites sung again and again each December came from the imagination, faith and genius of American composers, producing “Jingle Bells,” “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” “White Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,””The Christmas Song” and countless others.
Over the last hundred years, no nation has more enthusiastically indulged in the festive aspects of the Christmas Holiday than the United States and at the same time no Western nation (according to every measure of church attendance and professed belief) remains more fervently, overwhelmingly Christian. In short, the emphasis on Santa above salvation hasn’t destroyed the bedrock faith of the American people and even may have contributed to sustaining it.
The rituals of the season emphasize family, friends, fellowship, kindness and generosity – attractive if uncontroversial themes that draw more eager participation than posing the stark choice of paradise or perdition.
American Christmas traditions have also contributed to the sense of community and neighborliness that has made this blessed country the great exception in all of Christian history. In every other nation where different denominations have co-existed or arisen, the disparate followers of Christ expressed their doctrinal disagreements by slaughtering, burning, dismembering and damning one another with unimaginable ferocity. Even in the supposedly civilized Mother Country in the 1600’s, Puritan “Roundheads” battled Church of England “Cavaliers” in the grotesquely bloody English Civil War, with hundreds of thousands of casualties. At the same time, their counterparts in Massachusetts and Virginia might disagree over Scriptural interpretation (or even in approaches to the Christmas holiday) but never came to blows or bloodshed, and even managed to work together to forge a new nation in the next century.
It should come as no surprise that the prospect of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” appeals to lost sheep more readily than the image of “damned souls roasting on eternal hell fire.”
This seasonal recognition doesn’t mean that preachers and teachers should forever forgo all religious messages more demanding than “peace on earth to men of good will” --- but there are better occasions for those evangelical approaches than office Christmas parties (and “a time to every purpose under heaven.”) For many Americans, Christmas serves as a point of entry (or re-entry) to Godly connection – as it does to Soapy the Bum, who feels his whole soul transformed on hearing a Christmas hymn streaming out of an open church door in O. Henry’s great short story, “The Cop and the Anthem.”
Secularist militants dislike the holiday because its religious trappings remain inescapable and it reminds them of the nation’s deep Christian roots. Some faith-based enthusiasts may simultaneously resent the ecumenical, commercialized, gauzy, feel-good atmosphere associated with the festival in its American incarnation. But most citizens—including those of us who constitute the nation’s small non-Christian minority – continue to value the properly revered “Christmas spirit” with its emphasis on eternal verities like kindness, community, continuity and new life that continue to characterize what the song rightly heralds as “the most wonderful time of the year.”