It seems every year, about this time, a select few on the right-leaning side of the punditocracy get their collective knickers in a knot over a supposed “War on Christmas” being perpetrated by their ideological opponents. As wars go, this imagined assault has to be one of the least successful campaigns in history, ranking somewhere between Custer at Little Big Horn, and anytime anyone has ever tried to invade Russia in the winter. We’re not seeing the burned corpses of shopping mall Santa Clauses rotting in the streets. Bright lights and fake reindeer still color our streetscapes. Many mainstream FM radio stations still switch their playlists to all Christmas on December 1st – including songs celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. And December 25th itself is still a statutory holiday. This is hardly the time for so-called defenders of Christmas to circle the toy wagons and rend the linings of their Santa suits in desperation. Just knock back an egg nog and chill. Please.
Honestly, I’m not even sure what it is they’re protesting. It’s not a return to tradition, as it’s plain that Christmas as we celebrate it and have celebrated it for well over a century has little to do with Jesus. Customs like the tree, Santa Claus, eating turkey, none of those come from the Bible. Indeed, what we think of as a proper Christmas owes more to the writings of Charles Dickens and his Cratchit family than it does to Church doctrine. The date itself was picked by Pope Julius I in the 4th Century, borrowed (or stolen) from the pagan Saturnalia festival. Even the Bible doesn’t claim that Christ was born in December – Bethlehem around this time of year hits sub-zero temperatures during the night, and shepherds would not be out watching their flocks in the fields, as it says in Luke 2. And amazingly, Jeremiah 10:2-4 prohibits Christmas trees entirely:
2Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
3For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
4They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.
As oppressed as those who lash out against this supposed shock and awe being perpetrated against the twenty-fifth of December by the evil liberal literati may feel nowadays, it used to be a lot worse. In colonial America, celebrating Christmas would cost you a five-shilling fine – you could thank the humourless Puritans for that one. The Founding Fathers didn’t think much of Christmas either, holding their first session of Congress on Christmas Day, 1789. It wasn’t until 1870 that the U.S. government finally declared it a national holiday.
What probably sticks in their craw the most is that Christmas, like life itself, evolves. Long gone, at least among the majority of those who observe the Yuletide holiday, is the absolute requirement to fast and attend a morose mass, replaced by the sound of little footsteps running down the stairs as soon as dawn breaks to see what Santa and the reindeer have brought. From year to year, from generation to generation, Christmas is in motion as old traditions are modified, expounded upon, abandoned, as new carols are added to the canon, tastes in decoration (and food) change, new Christmas movies find their way into theaters. But more importantly, Christmas changes as families themselves combine, separate, expand or contract. Like a cosmic cornucopia of paint colors ebbing and flowing, blending together to produce new ways of celebrating the one day a year it remains a virtue to be nice to someone else just for the sake of being nice – in a world increasingly given to assigning a perplexing nobility to selfishness.
Santa Claus as we know him – the jolly fat guy in the red suit – was essentially a creation of the Coca-Cola company’s advertising department back at the turn of the 20th Century. But we have applied that image to the legendary figure of St. Nicholas and crafted something entirely new, a character who now fires the imaginations of millions of children as they await his yearly arrival. It evolved in our collective consciousness. Much as Christmas itself will continue to evolve with the coming years and decades. That isn’t a war on Christmas – it’s a perfectly natural next step. Like the strongest in nature, Christmas will survive. And to those trying to hold back the progress of nature, there’s truly only one reply: Bah humbug.