So. Apparently, we’re still at war. Not the war in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or against ISIL. We’re still at war over Christmas. Some of my Christian brothers and sisters are reprising their now decade-long campaign, protesting what they suspect are signs of a great liberal plot to eradicate Christmas—and then Christianity—from the public square. They point to the fact that a number of major retailers continue to greet patrons with the words “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas.” This year, the great enemy is Starbucks, who for reasons that can only be considered anti-Christian, apparently, have neglected to include any iconography on their holiday coffee cup.
Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that red is a Christmas color. Let us leave aside the fact that “Happy Holidays” is a greeting that has been around for decades, and is usually assumed to be shorthand for “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” Let us also leave aside for the time being the fact that prior to December 25th, no one should be wishing anyone a “Merry Christmas”—(it’s still Advent before that). Let us skip for now the fact that in the last decade some of the largest mega-churches did not have services on Christmas Day, even when Christmas day fell on a Sunday (Sunday happens to be the most important day of the Christian calendar) to little or no criticism from the loudest voices objecting to the “War.”
The greater issue is that if there is actually a War on Christmas, it was lost decades ago.
It has long ceased to be the holiday of the Church and has become the holiday of American retail business. Those who are shouting the most about this War on Christmas are themselves proving the point. For in their objection to retailers’ use of “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” they are conceding the point that such retail chains have anything to do with Christmas.
According to the Church, Christmas is a twelve-day holiday commencing on the twenty-fifth of December and ending on the sixth day of January, on the Feast of the Epiphany. According to Macy’s, Christmas begins at noon on Thanksgiving when Santa Claus rides through Herald Square and declares the start of the Christmas season. According to the CVS in my neighborhood, Christmas has already begun, as all the decorations are already up. Which interpretation is the dominant one in our culture?
If there was a War on Christmas, it was won so decisively and so completely that nary a single shot was fired back. The business world has defined the holiday. Now, when people talk about Christmas, they do it on the terms that the retailers have set. By worrying about how retailers are greeting patrons, or decorating their coffee cups, critics of the practice have unwittingly bought into the idea that Christmas is a retail holiday. It should not matter how some employee at Wal-Mart or Target greets me at the door. It should not matter what imagery is on a cup used to sell me coffee. They could wish me a Peaceful Solstice and it would have no effect on my Christian faith. Because even if they were to wish me a Merry Christmas, they would not necessarily be referring to the holiday that I treasure.
The Christmas I know is a time of family, it is a time of peace, and most importantly, it is a time to celebrate the awesome mystery of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word of God. The mystery of the Son of God coming in human form as a child born to working-class parents in a backwater region of an ancient Empire. It is about the coming of God into our midst in our flesh, to live our life, to die our death, and to be raised to our resurrection. That mystery of love and grace has absolutely nothing to do with the mad dash to trample people in order to buy a PlayStation 4, or whatever the “must have” product of the year is. The incarnation—the radical demonstration of solidarity by the Eternal God with mortal humanity—is completely unrelated to the purchasing of a Lexus and wrapping it in a giant bow in the driveway.
Christians believe that Christ came into our midst at Christmas to demonstrate God’s grace, that God loves us without regard to our merit, without condition. The modern Christmas seems to be about demonstrating love through the provision of material goods: “Show her you love her with a diamond this Christmas.”
I don’t care if they wish me Merry Christmas at the mall, and in some ways, I don’t want them to—they’re just cheapening the holiday by associating this miracle with rampant consumerism and the accumulation of material goods.
In my daydreams, I imagine negotiating a new treaty in this conflict. I imagine new terms: Retailers can have Yule and Christians will have Christmas. Yule can start on the day after Thanksgiving, its songs can play on the radio until December 25th, people can go crazy buying Yule presents, and the decorations can come down January 2nd. Christmas will start on December 25th, and it will be celebrated in the churches and at home, in ways where love is not measured by how many presents have been given or received. While Yuletide celebrants can be about the business of acquiring and trading valuable consumer goods, Christians can be about the business of taking care of the poor and the needy who suffer the most during the cold winter months.
Perhaps then we wouldn’t worry about what retailers wished us, or what cities called their decorated trees, because we would understand the difference between the Christian holiday of Christmas and the commercial onslaught that is the Yule, the Christmas we are familiar with.
It’s a dream of course. There’s an awful lot of money at stake in preserving the status quo. But Christmas is also a time of dreams, too—when Joseph dreamed of a child sent from God, when people dream of peace—so I will continue to dream that Christmas may be restored from its defeat. That once again a holiday of grace and peace, of love and charity may take its place among us. That will not happen by berating retailers. It will happen when Christians decide to reclaim their holiday as one that belongs to them. So, while others may dream of a White Christmas, I will continue to dream of a Christian Christmas.
This essay is an updated version of an essay originally written in 2006, which, sadly, continues to be relevant.