Ladies and gentlemen, I’m happy to announce the War on Christmas is over.
And it’s been over for about one hundred and fifty years.
The Puritans waged the original War on Christmas in 17th century England and, later, the American colonies. A bunch of killjoys, the Puritans were a super-conservative branch of Protestantism that believed most forms of worldly pleasure were detestable to God.
With its rampant caroling, merriment, feasting, and drinking, the Puritans viewed Christmas as an affront to God himself. Following the English Revolution in 1647, the new Puritan government canceled Christmas in England for thirteen years.
When the Puritans came to the New World on the Mayflower and established Plymouth Colony, it was decided Christmas would not be observed. A few years later, Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony actually banned Christmas and would fine anyone caught celebrating it.
I’m not making this up.
This is 100% true.
The Puritans finally gave up their War on Christmas when Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870. Or, in other words, the U.S. Federal Government rescued Christmas from the clutches of conservative Christianity.
It’s a funny story and a decidedly odd bit of Christian and American history.
And, like an annual tradition, around this time every year, a lot of ink is spilled by liberal and conservatives alike on the War on Christmas.
However, the new War on Christmas is a bit different. While the Puritans were motivated by theological and social concerns, the current holiday skirmish is driven by good old fashion identity politics.
To the Right, the War on Christmas is an organized effort by the Left to erode the Christian foundations of the United States by removing any reference to Christianity from the holidays.
To the Left, the War of Christmas is an ignorant crusade by the Christian Right to cram conservative ideology and Christmas imagery down everyone else’s throats.
Each side can point to dozens of valid examples backing their position, but maybe we’ve all been fooled into fighting a battle that doesn’t really matter anymore.
Because, at the end of the day, maybe we’re all shell-shocked casualties of the real War on Christmas.
Listen, if there ever was a “War on Christmas” in America, Christians willingly surrendered a long time ago.
And the final blow didn’t come from outside the Christian faith; it came from within.
From its roots in a story about a God-king born into poverty among an oppressed people group who went on to minister to the poor and sick, we’ve constructed an inward-focused, shop-till-you-drop, high-definition celebration of American excess and materialism.
We’ve all been duped.
Any talk of a liberal War on Christmas is a smokescreen, purposefully designed to stoke the embers of outrage and divisiveness in a country already torn apart by social strife.
Pastor and author John Pavlovitz writes,
“In truth, the “war on Christmas” cries offer a convenient distraction for we who have become complacent and comfortable in our affluent, cozy religion. They generate the kind of cheap urgency we need to take a yearly self-righteous stand, filling us with the easy high of temporary pious outrage.”
And, perhaps more dangerously, it fools Christians into believing the spirit of Christmas hinges on a specific type of religious vocabulary and decoration rather than the ways we chose to spend our time and money.
Yes, Christianity’s influence in the United State is declining, but at the same time, mainstream Christianity hasn’t exactly succeeded at modeling a compelling alternative to secular culture.
And the same holds true for Christmas.
Aside from (maybe) attending a Silent Lord’s Supper service on Christmas Eve, the ways in which Christians celebrate Christmas are virtually indistinguishable from their secular neighbors.
The decline of Christianity’s cultural privilege and preference is not the same religious persecution. If anything, it should be an indication that cultural Christianity has little to no value for people outside the Christian bubble.
Most Christmas “controversies” involve the separation of Church and State (which are designed to protect against religious persecution) or private companies responding to market pressure. America is not a theocracy, and thank God for that.
However, at the other end of the political outrage cycle, the assumption that a traditional celebration of Christmas is offensive and antagonistic is a bit of an overreach.
Christians weren’t the ones who weaponized Christmas (at least, not intentionally). Instead, it was the accusation that they were that further entrenched pre-existing biases and pushed them into a defensive posture.
“Merry Christmas” isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a “F*ck you” to secular culture. But, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, it will become that way if it’s treated as such.
The culture war mindset is completely antithetical to the life and teachings of Jesus. As such, it’s important to see the War on Christmas for what it truly is: A skirmish being fought and perpetuated by two small but outspoken groups at extreme ends of the ideological spectrum who are trying to convince the rest of us that we have to pick a side.
Don’t fall for it.
Reality is far more complicated than either group will lead you to believe.
And, if Christians can’t celebrate the birth of the “Prince of the Peace” without triggering a culture war, then the problem is probably Us, not Them.
Hail the Unconquered
Christians in America live in a secular, diverse, and pluralistic culture.
And that’s okay.
Since the beginning, Christmas has always been a cross-cultural affair. The Egyptians – the ancient enemy of the Jewish people – provided shelter to Jesus’s family in their time of need, and “mystics from the East” brought Jesus gifts a few years after his birth.
And, each of the three major Abrahamic faith traditions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – celebrate “Holy Days” during the midwinter weeks that close out the year.
It’s no accident Christmas falls a few days after the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year. Hundreds of years before Christianity, different cultures believed the sun had to be “encouraged” to return for spring.
It sounds silly today, but in societies that made their living from farming, the cycle of the sun was extremely important because it was directly connected to their survival. Also, the winter months were cold and harsh; it just made sense to gather together to drink, eat, and enjoy each other’s company.
For example, the Roman feast days of Saturnalia occurred between December 17th and December 23rd. On December 25th, the Persians celebrated the birth of Mithra, the god of Light, in a ceremony known as Dies Natalis Invicti, or the “birthday of the unconquered sun.”
In Northern Europe, early Germanic people observed Yule, a twelve-day midwinter festival that honored Odin, the Norse god of creation. A Yule Log would be burned to scare away evil spirits.
In Eastern Europe, the Slavic people participated in Koliada, in which young people would walk from house to house singing songs of “cheer” and expecting small gifts – like candy or coins – in return. Today, we call this caroling.
The decorated Christmas tree originated from the Celtic tradition of hanging ornaments that honored the culture’s primary three deities – the sun, moon, and stars. In a weird twist, the prophet Jeremiah actually warned against participating in the “ways of the nations’ that includes cutting a tree from the forest and “decorating it with silver and gold.”
Wreaths were woven to celebrate Roman military victories. And the hanging of the mistletoe is a Druid symbol of male virility; many a child were conceived during the long winter nights.
As Christianity spread across Europe, these ancient rituals and customs were reformatted and redefined to fit the message of the Christian faith.
I’m not sharing this information to discourage participation in any particular Christmas tradition. I just want to show how our religious and cultural history is far more rich, complex and weird than we probably realize.
But, can you see why it rings a little false for Christians to claim that Christmas is a holiday that belongs solely to us?
And, if we’re honest, a “faithful” observance of the birth of Jesus – one that reflects the charity and humility of his birth – would look a lot different than how we traditionally celebrate the holiday.
Santa God is Coming to Town
One of my best friends works for an organization that makes sure Christians are spiritually and psychologically healthy enough to handle overseas mission work. It’s an arduous program, and many people drop out before they complete it.
He told me they do just as much “unlearning” as they do teaching new concepts. And one of the biggest hurdles applicants have to overcome is stripping away what the organization calls “Santa Claus Theology.”
In “Santa Claus Theology,” an adult’s conception of God is almost indistinguishable from a child’s perception of Santa Claus: God is an imposing figure with a white beard, knows if you’ve been naughty or nice, keeps a list, and he bestows or withholds blessings based on your behavior.
A potent combination of folklore and spirituality, according to my friend, Santa Claus Theology is incredibly difficult to root out.
However, one of the most damaging aspects of Santa Claus Theology is that it can train our brains to treat Jesus as a commodity. He is something we use and discard when we’re done. In a culture dominated by rampant consumerism and instant gratification, we really shouldn’t be surprised that our religious beliefs have been affected as well.
While our modern depiction of Santa Claus is a cultural hodge-podge of Norse mythology, Germanic tradition, and a wildly successful Coca-Cola advertising campaign from the 1930s, his Christian namesake was a bit different.
Saint Nicholas of Myra is the Christian inspiration for Santa Claus. We actually don’t know much about the 4th-Century saint (all of his writings and biographies have been lost), but a few legends persist.
One of the famous stories involves Saint Nicholas rescuing three girls from slavery. He learned the girls were to be sold into slavery by their father. On the eve of their sale, Saint Nicholas ran by their home in the middle of the night and tossed three bags of gold through the window to pay their ransom.
One version of this story has the gold falling into three socks that were hanging to dry above the fireplace. The next time you hang up Christmas stockings for Santa’s elves to fill, we should be reminded of that story.
If Christians truly want to “take Christmas back” from the secular culture, then we need to start with our own wallets and honestly wrestle with how we celebrate the holidays.
In its current form, commercialized Christmas is a secular holiday powered by ritualistic consumerism dressed in a weird mix of pagan and religious iconography.
I’m preaching to myself as much as to anyone else, but the real War on Christmas ended when we sold out the ways of Jesus for a cheap substitute of materialistic comfort and rose-tinted nostalgia.
But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
The Puritans biggest mistake was assuming joy had no place in the celebration of Christ’s birth. Most Christmas traditions are fun and harmless, and they speak to our higher need for human connection and acceptance.
We need each other. And, like the pagan tribes who gathered together in the bleak midwinter, we need warmth, light, and community in the midst of hostile and cold environments.
But as our awareness of the world grows, so does our awareness of the world’s brokenness.
In Advent Conspiracy, pastor Chris Seay writes,
“What if, in the coming years, Christ-followers around the world started a countercultural movement that reached far beyond a few days each December? What if we joined together – across lines that often separate us – to serve both local communities and remote villages in the name of Jesus? Perhaps we could reclaim the story of Christmas, and the world would once again take notice.”
I think Christmas still has the power to change the world.
And, if that sounds a tad overwhelming, you can start with your family.
Organizations like World Vision and Compassion International offer “gift catalogs” every year that lets you meet the needs of impoverished communities around the world. Your family can purchase a goat for a family, life-saving vaccinations for children or a help fund a well for an entire village.
You could make a charitable donation in a family member’s name to an organization like UNICEF or the International Rescue Committee. And if you want to buy a tangible gift, several forward-thinking companies sell trendy products that “give back” to specific causes or support small businesses in other countries.
[I’ve included several lists and organizations in the Resources section below]
You’re not going to find Jesus in the last-minute madness of a holiday shopping spree or in the angry rant of a conservative talk show host. You won’t find him in Santa’s bag of presents (which always seems to favor the kids with rich parents over the poor ones), nor will you find him in the value-signaling pontifications of a liberal talking head.
In a story Jesus told to his disciples, he let them know that they’ll always be able to find him embodied in the personal experiences of the poor, hungry, thirsty, and sick. It’s not exactly where one would expect to find the Son of God.
I think that’s why so many of us feel letdown and depressed in the aftermath of the holidays. All that buildup and anticipation, and we’re still left empty and cold.
Maybe we’re just looking in the wrong place.
Real Homes: 15 Christmas Gifts That Give Back
Women’s Day: 32 Gifts That Give Back to Charity