American holidays are already Godless

Q: What do you think of the American Humanist Association’s new “Godless Holiday” campaign? The ads will say: “No God? … Continued

Q: What do you think of the American Humanist Association’s new “Godless Holiday” campaign? The ads will say: “No God? . . . No Problem! Be good for goodness’ sake. Humanism is the idea that you can be good without a belief in God.

The humanists are pointing out the obvious. American public holidays are about consumption, not God. Even worse, the Christian faith has internalized this message of cultural Christmas. Christians themselves often forget what Christmas is really about. The humanists really can’t do any more harm to Christians about Christmas than we’ve already done to ourselves.

American holidays, particularly Christmas, are all about the economy. Economists track the health or weakness of the economy based on the purchasing habits of American consumers between now and Christmas. A Gallup poll from less than a month ago predicts that the outlook for holiday spending by consumers will be down again, though perhaps not as “bleak” as 2008. That’s why “black Friday” is called black–retailers are supposed to get out of the “red” and into the “black” on that pivotal spending day.

We’ve set up our entire economy to depend on the sales generated by the hype of “holidays,” particularly Christmas. What could this possibly have to do with God?

The way Americans celebrate the Christmas holiday and the Christian faith parted long ago. There is almost nothing remaining in the public square that is actually Christian about Christmas. The symbols certainly are not: Christmas trees? Roman Saturnalia. Mistletoe? Druids. Santa Claus? Well, he has the best credentials.

“Old Saint Nicholas,” on whom Santa is loosely based, was actually was a 4th century Christian bishop who was named a saint in the 19th century. In Europe he was pictured as a stern figure or even a gnome. The American Santa we know today, however, has a background in sales. In 1931 Coca Cola commissioned a Swedish commercial artist to create a coke-drinking Santa. Santa’s cheery round face and especially his bright red suite come from his coke-drinking image. Coke likes to play this down, but does accept credit for some of Santa’s image.

This is not entirely the fault of corporations or their marketing divisions. Christians have allowed Christmas to become so diluted into the general culture that the core message of the faith, God’s astonishing self-revelation as seen through the birth of a poor child in Bethlehem, has been lost. The birth of Christ should be understood as the amazing beginning of making right what has been so broken in our relationship with God through sin and alienation. And very often it isn’t.

I will speak for my own church, the United Church of Christ, and share one example of how we allow ourselves to become captive to the ordinary values of this culture, and so miss the core message of Christmas.

At the church my family and I attended for nearly a decade, a controversy erupted when a committee decided to purchase a life-sized crèche for display on the church lawn during the Christmas holidays. The statues of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, a couple of shepherds and a wise man from the East cost thousands of dollars. Other members of the church thought the money should be spent on the poor. The committee prevailed, however, and the statues were purchased.

But lo and behold, when the statues arrived, the baby Jesus was not attached to his manger. He was real baby-sized and designed just to be placed in the large bin of straw that represented his cradle in the stable in Bethlehem.

Somebody could just pick up the baby Jesus statue and walk off with it! Alarmed church members decided to put a bolt in the back of the baby Jesus statue and chain him to the manger in order to keep him safe from theft.

The pastor preached a wonderful sermon about what a great moment this was for the church to really experience the vulnerability of God in Christ born helpless in a stable. The pastor had not been in favor of buying the crèche, he said, but now that the church had it, it was an excellent moment to understand this deep truth about the birth of Christ. The pastor wanted the church not to chain baby Jesus to the manger, but to live with the mystery of God incarnate.

So what happened? Did the church listen to the pastor and learn about the vulnerability of God taking human flesh? No, they put in the bolt and chained baby Jesus to the manger.

So what could the humanists do to undermine the message of Christmas that Christians haven’t already done to themselves?


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • fresnoBob

    Excellent piece of point-missing their Susan. Just magic! Keep it up.

  • kjohnson3

    Maybe the Puritans had it right. They were so disapproving of Christmas (and its Catholic origins) that its celebration was banned in Boston during the second half of the 17th century.Anyway, this is a wonderful piece. Right on target and so revealing of our misplaced priorities.It’s a shame that so few Christians seem to share the author’s sentiments.

  • trobador

    I’m sorry that people regret the pagan/secular/materialist aspects of the Christmas season. These are actually older than the Christian/religious parts, they are just as deeply rooted, and they have their own legitimacy. It’s dark and depressing in December, and people get together to drink, celebrate, exchange gifts, and even have out-of-the-box sex in order to cheer themselves up and reach out for pleasurable human solidarity. Why not?The Jesus story is a fine part of it for those who are touched by the religious side. But the revelry goes on as well. It’s normal, and need not be bemoaned or bewailed.

  • Skowronek

    “Maybe the Puritans had it right. They were so disapproving of Christmas (and its Catholic origins) that its celebration was banned in Boston during the second half of the 17th century.”In New England, December 25 was a workday (unless it fell on a Sunday) well into the 19th century. It was not a bucolic frolic through the snow to grandmother’s house. Not in the least.

  • MillPond2

    If you are secure in your Christian beliefs, why should you feel threatened by what you perceive as religious non-compliance by others? Or is your faith not as rock solid as you have led yourself to believe?

  • Toosoonoldtoolatesmart

    “Christians have allowed Christmas to become…diluted”? Please educate yourself, Professor Fraud. The ACLU, activist judges and many of those who sit hypocritically in the seats of your United Church of “Christ” have led the charge in secularizing Christianity and obliterating its symbols. It’s appalling to think that you were ever President of a Theological Seminary, even in thug-run Chicago, when you are so ignorant of the concerted drive by Communists and subversives to eliminate any expression of Christianity in our country. You should hang your head in shame for failing to defend the expression of Christian belief, but instead you write a column blaming Christians for this travesty? Disgusting.

  • bobmoses

    LOL. Another “OnFaith” piece attacking Christians. What a joke. Any chance that “OnFaith” might devote an article or two to someone who is not a hyper-partisan liberal whose life’s ambition it is to sneer at Christians?Also, if the writer is so concerned about “nothing remaining in the public square that is actually Christian about Christmas”, she can thank her intolerant liberal buddies who have worked so hard to make public expressions of faith a crime.

  • noellestewart

    Wouldn’t it be great to show the Holy Family living in a FEMA trailer or in a cart-mounted tent for the homeless? I’ve suggested that to my church but, so far, no takers.

  • Skowronek

    “Wouldn’t it be great to show the Holy Family living in a FEMA trailer or in a cart-mounted tent for the homeless? I’ve suggested that to my church but, so far, no takers. Given that menstruating women were viewed as unclean at that time (and culture), and women who gave birth were particularly unclean; if Mary had had her baby within the inn, it would have cost the innkeeper quite a bit of scratch to have the place ritually purified. No one cared if she gave birth in the stables. Those were already viewed as unclean places. No risk of having to have anyone come and make it fit for the higher-end paying customers.

  • tojby_2000

    TOOSOONONDTOOLATESMART wrote: …The ACLU, activist judges and many of those who sit hypocritically in the seats of your United Church of “Christ” have led the charge in secularizing Christianity and obliterating its symbols. ___________________________________________Since the ACLU has proven itself more powerful than your god, I hereby bless you with the link to upgrade your faith tradition. (You will find the tithing obligation quite modest and fellow members very well educated).

  • joe_allen_doty

    The name of the Faith of the Followers of Jesus in the New Testament Books was NOT, I repeat was NOT, Christianity. It was THE WAY! The Greek-speaking pagans in Antioch, Syria, created the epithet “Christian” to make fun of those who preached about the “Anointed (One)” which is transliterated as “Christos.” Those who were active in THE WAY called themselves and each other “BELIEVERS.” I was born and raised in Oklahoma and I self-identify by the name “Oklahoman.” The hateful epithet “Okie” was created by people in California to make fun of the poor and homeless Oklahomans who lived in the Great Plains area of the State who went West to find work. While the drought in the middle of the USA did have an effect on all of the State of Oklahoma, even the author of “The Grapes of Wrath” proved he was ignorant about Oklahoma. His “Joad family” were not from the Great Plains; they were from the Sallisaw area in Eastern Oklahoma in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains.

  • joe_allen_doty

    The Magi (aka “Wise Men’) did not see the new born infant Jesus in a stable. Jesus was close to 2 years old by the time they finally saw him. The shepherds who were watching their sheep when it was warm enough to spend the night out the open air, it was in the spring, saw angels, those heavenly creatures who look like men and don’t have wings told them were to see the baby in a manger. When one sees “angel” in the Bible text, the context has the humans believing they were seeing adult male human beings. Even Christian Bookstores sell winged creatures which look like women with wings and babies with wing during the so-called Christmas sales season. The only 2-wing heavenly creatures in the Bible are cherubs and they are never referred to as “angels.”

  • joe_allen_doty

    I don’t self-identify as a “Christian;” but, I have been a REAL “Believer in Jesus” since I was 8 years old and I am now 67 years old. In the book of Acts in the Bible, one of the 1st church deacons was named Nicholas. He was a saint as soon as he accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior. No human committee made him a saint and they didn’t have to do it after he died.My parents told us about the legends of “Santa Claus.” But, since Jesus was born after dark and a Jewish new calendar day began at sundown, my folks read us the story of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and then we opened our gifts. Since the heavenly Father gave the free gift of Salvation to His human children, our parents gave gifts to us children. If we got any presents on December 25, they were given to us by relatives when we gathered together for noon day dinner on that day. But, if one really wants to be scripturally correct as far as what happened during Jesus’ first day as a human baby, one doesn’t have to give or exchange gifts at all. While 3 categories of gifts are mentioned in Matthew, how many Magi saw almost two-years-old Jesus in a house is not mentioned.The original Winter Solstice festival had no connection with Jesus’ birth in the 1st place. The “Christian” church leaders adopted or adapted pagan celebrations in an attempt to Christianize them. But, the only special day that the REAL early church, The Way, observed was Resurrection Day and they did that every evening of the 1st Day of the week (our calender – after sundown of the 2nd weekday Jewish calendar). That’s because all but one of Jesus’ Disciples (there were 120 of them according to Acts 2) saw Jesus that evening after the resurrection. Thomas was not there.

  • ThishowIseeit


  • EddietheInfidel

    As an atheist, I have a bit of problem with this ad campaign promoting a “godless holiday” by the American Humanist Association. By running these ads, it seems to me that they’re engaging in exactly the type of “proselytizing” that they find so “offensive”.The nativity scene in front of city hall is pretty, but means nothing to me, so I don’t care if it’s there or not. I don’t care if it says “in god we trust” on our money, or if the words “under god” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance after the fact.Atheism, or if you prefer this weak PC term “humanism”, isn’t a religion and shouldn’t be promoted as such. People will, or will not, see logic on their own in their own time; no advertising campaign will change that.I don’t care what others believe; they can delude themselves as they like. Religious stuff of any ilk is just so much chaff to me, and I can ignore it and let it roll off.I’ll be the first to fight the good fight if there’s a serious threat of theocracy being established in the U.S., but until then I’ll just party on Fridays without the muslims, break the jewish sabbath on Saturdays, and watch the early game on Sunday instead of going to christian services.

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