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?