In Maryland, the Montgomery County School board has stripped Christmas, as well as all religious holidays, from the school calendar. The vacation days are still there, but under new names that make no religious reference. In Piedmont, Alabama, the Freedom from Religion Foundation pressured the small southern town to drop its “Keep Christ in Christmas” parade on grounds that it was unconstitutional. The bottom line: Christians need to stop alienating their secular neighbors and celebrate something more inclusive. The war on Christmas is real.
Secularist groups may be fighting it now, but Christians started the war on Christmas. In 1647, the Puritan-led parliament worked to remove Christmas, Easter, and other “holy-days” from the calendar in England. Anyone who was caught promoting these religious holidays risked serious ramifications. On May 11th, 1659, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony sought to preserve the purity of the Christian faith and the sobriety of the faithful by declaring that “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way . . . shall pay for every such offense five shilling.”
When the town of Piedmont dropped the explicitly religious theme, groves of Christians came to the parade chanting, “Keep Christ in Christmas.” Many of the locals made giant floats that carried slogans such as “Jesus is the true gift” and signs that capitalized the Christ in “CHRISTmas.” One float was particularly striking. On the front sat a giant Christmas present from which came a large cross where a man pretending to be Jesus had fake nails holding him to the tree. Two little girls were dressed as angels kneeling before him and two others bowed in what appeared to be prayer.
The scene reminded me of an incident that Flannery O’Connor cites in a letter about a revivalist minister in Tennessee who chained a lamb to a cross in church and immolated it before his congregation’s eyes. Fr. Thomas Joseph White once said of the scene: “he may have been doing that for show, but I think that’s just as close to the Mass as he can get.” While the float in Piedmont was nowhere near as grotesque as the slaughtering of a lamb in church, displays like these make me quiver at the unfulfilled longings for Christ’s sacrificial presence that, outside of the Mass, can only be expressed in bizarre forms.
Christians in America fight to keep Christ in Christmas. I applaud them. But Christmas means “Christ’s Mass,” and the only way to keep Christ in Christmas is to keep the Mass in Christmas. Christ is coming on Christmas Eve, regardless of what parade gets canceled or what school refuses to acknowledge his birth. He is coming, despite the greed of Black Friday and the debauchery of Christmas celebrations throughout history.
He is coming on every altar where the liturgy is celebrated, and he intends to dwell in the meager stable of our human bodies. He extends an invitation not merely to remember, but to participate in his incarnation. Christians from all places, times, and spaces have awaited this miracle every Advent season and no “War on Christmas,” unless it is our own, can take away from millions of Christians participating in the “real presence” of Christ in Christmas on December 25th.
John Burtka is an alumnus of the Trinity Forum Academy and currently works for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in Wilmington, DE.