I am of a conflicted mind when it comes to Christmas commercialization. Seasonal buying and selling fuels the economy and keeps Target and Wal-Mart out of Chapter 11. Our commercial Christmas supports a great number people who in good part owe their livelihoods to Christmas buying, not least the buying done by Christians.
So maybe Christians have a point in their peevish complaints when a store chain banishes “Christmas” from shop floors during the, um, annual Holiday-Winter-Solstice-and-Something-Else season. There is no major chain that has not experimented with finding that exact yet still elusive Christmas alternative. “Holiday” gets tossed around as a substitute, and in the United Kingdom somebody tried out Winterval, a “winter festival” twist.
Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Target, Best Buy, Home Depot, Sears, Old Navy, Gap and others have all dropped or announced plans to drop or—in stealth fashion—simply obscured the word “Christmas” in their advertising in past years. Macy’s and Sears backed down on plans to eliminate Christmas under threat of an American Family Association boycott in 2005, as did Target. Wal-Mart at some point tossed its “Holiday Shop” and went back to its previous “Christmas Shop.” Gap and Best Buy are holdouts and both, along with about twelve others, are on the AFA’s naughty list. In previous years the AFA put Gap under a two-month boycott (to no effect) and the Catholic League once placed Best Buy on a “Christmas Watch List.” (Best Buy offers “Holiday” gift cards this year; it’s not for me to say if this bears watching.)
Other stores have toyed with Christmas-Free Zones, and I can’t say I blame them. In this super-sensitized era of inoffensive tolerance, stores hardly know whom to offend least by keeping or dropping Christmas.
The Christmas War isn’t limited to store chains. California does not have an official state Christmas tree, for instance, but there is an official California State Holiday Tree. It looks suspiciously like the older sort, which may explain why two governors in succession, Schwarzenegger and Brown, both stubbornly called it a Christmas tree. A California fire department somewhere did a demonstration on avoiding fires due to the careless handling of “holiday trees.” (Anyone stuck with a Christmas tree that year was out of luck in fire prevention. Oh, there’s a statistic to investigate—the number of fires traced to Christmas trees vs. holiday trees.)
Tree dust-ups along with issues over whether schools may offer Christmas concerts or limit themselves to plain vanilla “winter concerts” touch on questions of church and state. The store wars, though, concentrate on whose commercial frenzy it is: Christ’s or someone else’s.
Both reflect the decline of Christendom. The culture is no longer reliably Christian; the state reflects the culture (and helps shape it); Christians suffer a loss of privilege. Too many of us regard that as an indignity. For a number of reasons I’m not bothered. I won’t go into it here except to note we Christians must learn again how to engage the third century.
Agitation by Christian activist groups generally has the goal of “keeping Christ in Christmas” so everyone so will remember that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Is there anything wrong with that?
Yes. Christian aggressiveness over Christmas is embarrassing.
Who cares, first, if Best Buy or Gap “keeps” Christmas as a feature of their annual sales hustle? Hearing What Child is This? dispensed from overhead Muzak speakers as shoppers sort through Black Friday discards isn’t exactly the proclamatory moment St. Luke may have had in mind when he wrote his gospel.
Besides, the Christian proclamation of Christmas doesn’t belong to Gap, but to the Church of Christ. The culture may yet be residually Christian in some respects, but that hardly matters when it’s time to go shopping.
Yet somehow, as the AFA and the Catholic League would have it, making sure Wal-Mart features a Nativity Scene under a Christmas tree is a defense of Christianity. If this is how Christian apologists seek to defend Christmas, trust me, they’ve already lost the war.
There is a second reason. “Always,” noted St. Peter, “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:15-16).
If the AFA and the Catholic League and others (for this behavior is by no means limited to those two organizations), could concentrate more on “gentleness and respect” while accounting for our hope in Christ maybe they would not look so Grinch-like, threatening store clerks with boycotts and loss of income.
Maybe we Christians ourselves should stop calling Christmas “Christmas” and revert to an older eleventh century phrase, Cristes Maesse—Christ’s Mass. Best Buy can fend for itself.
Russell E. Saltzman is an online homilist for Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
Sears and Macy’s 2005 Christmas boycott
AFA’s 2011 Naughty and Nice Christmas list
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