So I was at a local Christmas party last night. There I met a most admirable young man with six beautiful and happy children and a seventh on the way. He makes his leaving as a boutique metal worker (cupolas and such), and he’s obviously a fine craftsman and an able entrepreneur. Not only that, he’s quite the connoisseur of fine beer and wine and quite widely read. He speaks with the eloquent sophistication—not often found among cosmopolitan sophisticates—of someone with justifiable confidence that he knows what he’s talking about. He’s a Republican out of personal self-reliance; he has no idea why any responsible person would need or want more than catastrophic health insurance. His knowledge of theology shamed me; he mentioned author after author I had heard of but not read. He and a couple of the other men present had a sophisticated and politely contentious conversation about Calvinism and Covenant Theology. He reported that he and his boss talked theology almost every day over lunch, and that his boss, although good and knowledgeable Christian, had distressing antinomian tendencies due to his neglect of the moral law of the Old Testament.
This guy told me calmly and almost as an aside that, because he’s not a Roman Catholic, he and his family don’t celebrate Christmas. His kids call Santa a stupid fat man. He, of course, is all for Christmas parties, but the thinks the birth of the Lord should be remembered every Lord’s day. The Catholics, he explained, were really good at converting pagans by appropriating their seasonal festivals for Christian purposes. But December 25 signifies, in truth, nothing properly Christian.
Our country’s first Christians, the Puritans, also were against Christmas as nothing more than an invention of popery. And I’ve said time and again, following Tocqueville, that we Americans wouldn’t be much without the enduring influence of our Puritan tradition.
Our Founders tended to slight Christmas as nothing more than an English tradition that deserves to fade away in republican America. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say Christmas almost disappeared from our country in the wake of the revolution. Obviously our nation wouldn’t be much without our republican principles.
But Christmas still reminds us that we’re more than Calvinist or enlightened, principled Deists or even some combination of the two.
Christmas survived in our country as a part of English history and belief that couldn’t quite be extinguished. And, thank God, John Wesley was all for the celebration of Christmas, as were our Lutheran and Catholic immigrants. Christmas really caught on among the slaves brought over from Africa, who saw that it was all about personal liberation. Maybe the best Christmas hymns written in America were African American spirituals—such as MARY HAD A BABY and GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN, which are rooted in both deep human longings and the earthy reality of what happened on Christmas day.
The England of the carols—primarily medieval and Catholic and aristocratic and certainly pre-Calvinist England—had it right that Christmas ought to be a joyful festival. It was the successor of the pagan festivals, but still something new, because the news was so much more unambiguously good than anything the pagans ever heard. Surely Tocqueville was right that the Christian message about the equal freedom of us all—a gift of our Creator—is our most precious inheritance from aristocratic centuries, and that Jesus Christ had to come to earth for us really to hear that message or have it become part of ourselves.
I could go on, following Ivan’s fine lead, and talk about the most depressing thing America can do and has done to Christmas is to make it less joyful, to domesticate or banalize it, to turn it into “Happy Holidays” that are neither pagan nor Christian. But it’s easy to exaggerate these criticisms. Christmas remains more Christian in America than we often know.
A joyful Christmas to all . . .