Empty Bromides: It's hard for anyone to be jolly about a secularized Christmas

Gene Edward Veith

Gene Edward Veith, Jr., is Professor of English at Concordia University-Wisconsin, where he has also served as Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences. He has authored numerous books, of which Postmodern Times received a Christianity Today Book Award as one of the top 25 religious books of 1994. He was a Salvatori Fellow with the Heritage Foundation in 1994-1995 and is a Senior Fellow with the Capital Research Center. He is currently the director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia University, a center devoted to the study of Christianity and culture. He is the cultural editor of World magazine.

New holiday movies include Surviving Christmas, about how depressing Christmas is, and Christmas with the Kranks, about the desire to skip the whole thing. Noel is about alienation, dejection, and dysfunctional families. Even the pro-Santa Polar Express is melancholy to the core. 'Tis the season to be bummed out.

On video, we have a whole array of Grinches and Scrooges. Families can also enjoy Christmas cheer by renting Bad Santa, depicting a department store Santa as a foul-mouthed, unrepentantly anti-Christmas dirty old man.

Again the ACLU will file lawsuits to protect the civil liberties of Americans from mangers and Christmas carols. Private companies will worry about offending people by mentioning the word Christmas, which has the word Christ in it, so will be careful to wish its customers a generic, content-free "happy holiday."

Is the culture turning against Christmas? It can't completely, since the retail economy has become so dependent on the consumer spending it inspires. Plus, everyone likes to receive presents. But the necessary rites of Christmas—shopping, decorating, sending cards to old friends, spending time with family—are now being seen as ordeals, chores, and occasions of "stress."

There is a long tradition of opposition to Christmas. Some Christians to this day refuse to honor the day in principled objection to following the liturgical calendar. The early Americans, with their Puritan roots, did not make a big deal out of Christmas.

The different views about observing Christmas had major ramifications in the Revolutionary War, when George Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas Day, 1776. The German mercenaries on the other side, being Lutherans for whom Christmas has always been a big deal, were busy celebrating and, taken completely by surprise, were routed.

In the 19th century, thanks to the influence of Queen Victoria's German husband and the thousands of German immigrants in the United States, the Lutheran way of observing the holiday—including decorating Christmas trees—was generally adopted in the English-speaking world. But even then there were dissenters, enshrined in Dickens's Ebenezer Scrooge, for whom the holiday was nothing but a waste.

The new opposition to Christmas is different. The issue is not just whether Christmas has become secularized. That has already happened. Now, the secularized Christmas seems to be losing its jolliness. When the last vestige of Christian sainthood has departed from even the secular icon, all that is left is Bad Santa.

When the specific content of Christmas—the celebration of God's incarnation for our salvation in the birth of His Son Jesus Christ—is lost or forgotten or disbelieved, all that remains are empty forms and going through the motions. The holiday has to be sustained instead by nostalgia—pleasant memories of times gone by, when the meaning of Christmas had not been totally lost—or other warm sentiments.

But while the anti-Christmas movies often lurch to various warm sentiments that are substitutes for Christ, those too are becoming more difficult to sustain in our post-Christian frame of mind. Someone who believes that the "spirit of Christmas" is all about the love of family will have a hard time keeping up the holiday cheer in a culture of broken families, rebellious kids, and self-centered parents.

Other holiday bromides about "the spirit of giving," "the magic of a child," and "a time to care for others" are equally shaky foundations for a holiday. So is the desire to "make everything perfect" to live up to the ghosts of Christmas past. For example, parents often work hard to manufacture moments that will give their children the same nostalgic memories they look back on to supply their Christmases with meaning. Other people complain that their "Christmas is ruined" because family squabbling spoils what has to be a perfect day.

What people need for a merry Christmas is forgiveness. Not as an item on a Christmas list of must-dos, but as an embodied reality. They need someone to forgive their trespasses and to enable them to forgive those who trespass against them. That is, they need Jesus.

Sometimes Jesus is brought into the secularized Christmas as some sort of symbol for all of these other Christmas ideals of family, giving, good will. But actually, the ideals are symbols for Him. All of the trappings and feelings of Christmas make sense when Jesus is their foundation, but they are too insubstantial apart from God in the flesh.

© Copyright World 2004. Used by permission.