Christmas Skirmishes as Old as Puritans; Support Your Neighborhood Reindeer

Article excerpt


Sometime when you get a chance, go back and look at newspapers from the 1940s, the 1930s or even the 1920s. Somewhere on the editorial pages in December, you'll find the obligatory op-ed of the season - the one about how sad it is that Christmas has become so commercialized. The one about how, in our greedy materialism, we've lost sight of the true significance of Christmas: the Christ child, born in a lowly cattle shed.

That's not to say the complaint was wrong in those days, nor is it wrong in these days, as far as that goes. It's just to say that we've been hearing worries about the loss of the meaning of Christmas for a long, long time, and still the thing goes lumbering on: our titanic holiday, our wild season, our profligate indulgence - our festival.

In truth, Christmas has always been something that would devour the world, if allowed. How could it not? The intersection of God and history - the Christian claim that on Christmas, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us - is such an enormous idea that it was bound to colonize and conquer everything near it. Our experience of Christmas theology was almost predetermined to build into our Christmas psychology. In the midst of a cold, dark season, you see, God gave us the gift of salvation, descending like a flame, and we responded much as you might expect - with a preference for bright colors, with a mad celebration, a raging fire of extravagance.

The old Puritans - our Pilgrim mothers and fathers - hated it, naturally. They recognized the pagan elements that had been absorbed and repurposed by the Christmas season: the mistletoe and the holly, the Christmas trees and the winter solstice, even Santa. They mistrusted the carnival atmosphere of the holiday, recognizing that it might lead to illicit sexual relations or, at the very least, dancing. Most of all, they hated the piling on of carols and decoration and poetry and merriment - all the medieval stuff they thought had covered up and obscured the truth of Christ.

It's hard to say they were completely mistaken, given the direction our modern Christmases have taken. There's something deeply puritanical in the modern war on Christmas, as though what the attackers really want is to drain the red from Christmas ribbons and the green from Christmas trees, erasing any hint of meaning for it all. Nevertheless, the stripped down, secularized version of the holiday is something we've all surrendered to, in one way or another. …