It’s December, which means it’s time for the annual War on Christmas™, in which the latest volley was fired by Albert Mohler in a column about a comment of Richard Dawkins’s in which he said that he intends to celebrate Christmas like any normal Englishman who happens to like decorated trees and getting together with friends and family.
We can only wonder which Christmas carols are Richard Dawkins’ favorites. The sight of an avowed atheist joining in the Christmas chorus is a bit hard to imagine. At the same time, there is something comforting about the idea that even the world’s most famous atheist will move his lips to the songs that celebrate Christ’s birth.
Mohler’s obviously limited imagination must be challenged all the time by people mouthing words that they know to be untrue or impossible, like carolers singing Frosty the Snowman, performers in Wagnerian operas full of Germanic gods, or Dana Perino defending Dubya’s latest blunder.
But let’s take a look at what Christmas is today, and how it got to be that way.
Start with a religious celebration—”Christmas” does, after all, derive from “Christ” and “mass”—but since no one knows when or whether Christ was born, celebrate it on the winter solstice, a time when lots of other people are throwing parties because a) there’s bugger all else to do during the long winter nights (except in South America, Australia, and southern Africa, where it’s summer, but since those places aren’t mentioned in the Bible, they don’t exist and can be ignored), and b) it’s easier to pull a Microsoft on them and embrace, extend, and extinguish those competing religions.
This coopting of pagan winter celebration comes with some baggage, like trees, feasting, and getting drunk, an ancient precursor to today’s tradition of getting stuck at O’Hare for six hours trying to get to the family reunion that Aunt Sylvia has guilted you into coming to because she has a feeling it’s going to be grandma’s last.
You may have noticed that by now we’ve gotten pretty far from the original mass to Christ, so let’s throw in a second religious element, in the form of Saint Nicholas of Myra, best known for anonymously giving money to a poor father for a dowry so he could marry off his three daughters. Over time, this philanthropist has morphed into a) the fat guy in red suit (oh so suitable for those bitter Turkish winters) in the Best Buy commercials telling you to spend $60 on a toaster that plays “Jingle Bells” or some such crap, and b) the canonical example of something no one over the age of ten believes in. Just like philanthropists who toss purses of dowry gold through people’s windows, I suppose.
Now glom this admittedly heartwarming tale onto the preexisting family get-togethers, feasting, yadda yadda, add the magnifying effects of advertising and conspicuous consumption, wait a few decades, and you get the pheasant’s tail that wags the dog of the US economy, i.e., Christmas as we know it today. Which, like that metaphor, is a jumbled stew of whatever elements seemed to make sense at the time through a turducken- and egg nog-induced haze.
So yes, at the core, Christmas is a Christian holiday. You may not know this, but many churches actually hold a special service for Christmas. But on top of that, we’ve added a whole bunch of purely secular stuff, like Christmas trees, presents, lying to children about where the presents came from, end-of-year vacations, getting together with the family, then ditching the family to go party with your friends, cookies, egg nog, looking forward to the after-Christmas sales, buying a Playstation 3 “for your wife”, and otherwise having a good old time before it’s time to start ignoring those new year’s resolutions.
Saying that Christmas today is about Jesus’ birth is like saying that the president’s job is to pardon turkeys. And in a country that’s nominally 75-80% Christian, you can’t blame all of that on the unsaved heathens.
So who’s waging the war on Christmas? It seems to me that Christians themselves traded it in for a new Nintendo a long time ago. So pardon me while I continue to enjoy my time off from work, parties, turkey, gifts, digging tinsel out of the cats’ litterbox, and sleeping in while other people go to church and fail to notice the striking similarities between the holiday’s mythical central figure—who sees you when you’re sleeping and when you’re awake, and doles out reward and punishment—and Santa Claus.
(Tip o’ the red-and-white cap to PZ for the Mohler link, and to Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw for the breathless style.)