This year’s renewal of the usually pedantic “Keep Christ in Christmas” discourse had a few interesting twists. A historically early Chanukah allowed Bill O’Reilly to vilify all those who uttered “Happy Holidays!” between a long string of holiday-less December dates. O’Reilly’s latest point of contentionthat Santa is verifiably “white”added an amusing flavor to what has become an annual ritual; one which is played out primarily via bumper stickers, front lawn decorations, Church bulletin boards, and awkward exchanges with grocery cashiers. This year, I was a bit surprised to discover that the trite debate had invaded my football fandom. In a December 2nd edition of “Tuesday Morning Quarterback,” ESPN writer Gregg Easterbrook offered his take on the issue. Sandwiched between accounts of the Steelers punting woes and the league scoring average, we find this gem:
Christmas can be vexing because it is both a religious and secular holiday. Observant Christians long have been concerned with the commercialization of Christmas. But there’s no reason why those who aren’t observant Christians should not approach Christmas purely as a gift-giving, feast-eating and under-the-mistletoe event. Wonderful as Christmas can be, it played no role in the nation’s history and makes no claim on the American national spirit. The methodical corporate destruction of Christmas via commercialization can be objected to only by observant Christians, which most people are not.
The implicit assumptions and objectionable philosophical implications here are too numerous to count. I’d imagine most folks involved with First Things would have a field day with a sports journalist’s delineation of the “American national spirit.” Personally, I was struck by Easterbrook’s point that only observant Christians can object to the commercialization of Christmas. Isn’t the commercialization of anything which makes a claim to the higher appetites of man (let alone the purported birth of the Son of God) a concern for everyone? Would Easterbrook also say that only devoted music aficionados can lament the mp3 file’s destruction of the album as music medium? I would argue that even for non-Christians, Christmas has a universal appeal. Insofar as the proposal of the Incarnation addresses one of the greatest human desires (that the transcendent become immanent), everyone has at least some stake in retaining the deeper meaning of the holiday.
As I fly cross-country to visit my parents, I find myself engaged in an admittedly pathetic exercise in yuletide nostalgia: I’m listening to Miracles , Kenny G’s Christmas album. This 1994 classic is not only a family favorite, but it might well be the most famous piece of Christian culture produced by a Jewish figure since the Letter to the Galatians. Perhaps this is merely the bias of warm childhood memories, but I simply can’t accept that the beauty of Kenny’s phrasing and expression stems solely from a desire for commercial success. The peace of the season and the accompanying recognition of the futility of all this hustle and bustle (read: the modern promethean attempt to construct beatitude) extends far beyond the bounds of orthodox Christianity.
Mainstream culture is full of indications that everyone, not just our long-haired jazz genius, intuits something beyond materialism in the season. Legions of Americans will plop down to enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life or some dramatization of A Christmas Carol (I personally recommend the version featuring Gonzo in the role of Dickens; it is remarkably faithful to the original text). Both depict the victory of genuine charity over “methodical corporate destruction,” and we love them for it. This is the problem with Easterbrook’s attitude. If the proposal of Christmas is worthless beyond “gift-giving,” “feasting,” and whatever happens “under-the-mistletoe,” why does the popular culture retain even a vague sense of transcendence in connection with the season? While practicing Christians may be justifiably disappointed in a sterilized “happy holidays” from their grocer, even this greeting extends something beyond the all-too-human midwinter bacchanalia historically provided by Saturnalia and the Mithraic birth, or today by New Year’s Eve. Regardless of whether or not non-Christians have the authority to object to commercialization, the fact is that by affirming narratives that intentionally move beyond materialism, they do object.
The picture Easterbrook paintsof those whose business it is to combat commercialized Christmas and those who shouldn’t be obligated to follow their leadis also inaccurate as an account of just how commercialization happens. The dynamics of the poorly-named “War on Christmas” do not typically involve two sides wielding disparate ideologies. Rather, those who engage in materialist activities (Christians and non-Christians alike) more often do so in the spirit of permissiveness, not in an antagonism against religious orthodoxy. There was no “pro-fleshpot” party speaking against Moses during the Exodus, only lax Israelites.
“Keep Christ in Christmas” should not be treated as a battle-cry but as a call to conversion from materialism, for Christians and non-Christians alike. This year, just like every year, ABC will air A Charlie Brown Christmas . And when Linus stops the madness with his proclamation of Luke 2, I’d like to think that we’ll all feel a bit convicted. While America is witnessing a very real antagonism toward religious expression, characterizing the Christmas debate as merely a conflict between competing coherent world-views misses the mark. Rather, to borrow an image from Solzhenitsyn, the line between secular and religious cuts through each of us. Perhaps instead of investing in more bumper stickers, we should simply incline the ear of our hearts a bit more toward Linus.
Brett Bertucio teaches religion at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School, Olney, MD .