By Scott C. Lowe
“Put Christ Back in Christmas” – it’s become the seasonal battle cry of some Christians, especially among conservative white Protestants. You hear it shouted from the church tops, or at least from billboards, bumper stickers, and Fox News. I question whether there is a “war on Christmas,” but even if there is, trying to put more Christ back into Christmas is the wrong battle. It is far better, for believer and doubter alike, to keep Christmas what it has always been, a balance between the sacred and the secular.
Many of our current Christmas traditions have long, deep roots in some decidedly non-Christian practices of early medieval Britain. As medievalist Todd Preston points out, we inherited a late December date for Christmas from several sources. Perhaps early Christians picked that date because of its association with Roman solstice celebrations; in either case the sun/son was rising. The date of Christmas also coincides with the pre-Christian celebration of Modraniht, or Mother’s Night, during which mothers stayed up until dawn to protect their children from fairies. It wouldn’t have been a huge leap for an early Christian convert to change that holiday into the celebration of a mother and the birth of her child. And, of course, our practice of bringing a live tree into our homes is one we take from ancient nature-worshiping religions.
Even after Christianity was well established in Britain, there was still a great deal of making merry in a Merry Christmas. The Arthurian legends tell of Christmas celebrations of mirth and merriment, drink and dancing that went on for 15 days! Those legends must have held more than a grain of truth. The 14th century theologian John Wyclif, the first translator of the Bible into English, complained bitterly of Christmas celebrations full of drink, ribald song, and “pageants of the devil.” Such complaints by clergy continued through the centuries and across the Atlantic. As historian Stephen Nissenbaum notes in The Battle for Christmas, late 17th century Puritan minister Increase Mather lamented Christmas celebrations in Boston complete with card playing, excessive drink, and “mad Mirth.” In the decades following the American Revolution, the celebration of Christmas in cities such as New York got so rowdy that it was regarded as a threat, not just to religion, but to public safety!
Those complaints came from Christian ministers in stricter, more homogeneous societies. But now our country is becoming more ethnically, racially and religiously diverse. At the same time, some reports suggest that the percentage of Christians is dropping, even among evangelicals, and that the number of non-believers is growing. Islam is widely reported to be the fastest growing religion in the United States. The reliability of any of these statistics is not important. What is clear is that we all live together in a very diverse nation in which those conservative “Put Christ Back in Christmas” Christians are but one, relatively small, part. Why would anyone want to draw a line in the sand over the secular half of our celebration of Christmas, especially when these traditions are so richly intertwined with our nation’s history and culture? At a time when our religious practices are becoming even more diverse, we should welcome those traditions which, with a little tolerance and flexibility, serve to bring us closer together, and not just in the checkout line at Wal-Mart.
The moral of the story is that we should follow Fred, Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew Fred. In the opening scene of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, we meet Scrooge’s nephew who has come to the counting house to invite his uncle to Christmas dinner, seemingly in vain. In this exchange with Scrooge, Dickens puts into the mouth of Fred his own view on the value of Christmastime. It is, he says, “a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” It took the ghost of Jacob Marley and three spirits to open Scrooge’s shut-up heart, but open it he did. For the rest of us, we already have long established Christmas traditions of peace and harmony, generosity and good will. Living these virtues at Christmastime does not demand that we share the same version of Christianity, or even be Christian. A Merry Christmas to us all.
Scott C. Lowe received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Virginia. He is Professor and Chair in the Philosophy Department at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. Lowe is the editor of Christmas – Philosophy for Everyone: Better Than a Lump of Coal published by Wiley-Blackwell this year and the author of “Ebenezer Scrooge – Man of Principle” which appeared in Think magazine in 2009.