Mar  2014 19
The Lost Culture War

A blog on Christmas during Lent? Sure! While the lights are in boxes and the specious “war on Christmas” is not being fought, with plenty of time to reflect on the matter before planning church events and worship for Advent and Christmas, I offer the following thoughts.

Christians in the U.S. have lost the war for Christmas, and that lost war bears no resemblance to the fictional war on Christmas the political right has constructed.

The war for Christmas is not about crèches in the public square, Christmas songs in public schools, or do we wish someone else “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” No, the lost war for Christmas was the Christian attempt to make Christmas both a big cultural holiday AND “keep Christ in Christmas.” That war has been so thoroughly lost to the culture that even many who identify as “Christian” are fighting for the other side.

Did you see the Pew Research study on Christmas in the U.S., released at the end of 2013? See it here.

On the one hand, you’ll see 92% of Americans celebrate Christmas; over 80% of non-Christians celebrate Christmas. But what do we mean by our celebrations? That’s where I find the poll’s findings most striking. Take a look at the following.

White evangelical Protestant, white Catholic, black Protestant, and people over 65 years old are most likely to view Christmas as a religious rather than a cultural celebration. Given the number of persons who identify themselves as Christians, the overall numbers are less than stellar. But take a look at the following chart:

Eleven percent most look forward to the religious aspect of Christmas. Eleven percent.

Ever since my college days and formal religious studies, I’ve been aware of the war for rather than the war on Christmas. One strategy of the war was to sing only Advent hymns in church while the culture was hearing all the carols, and retain Christmas hymns for Christmas Eve through January 6. For the great majority of evangelical and mainline congregations, I ask: “So, how’s that strategy working for ya?”

Another strategy was to try to steer people to buy fewer gifts, and from alternative sources, such as sponsor an animal through Heifer International, purchase from a fair trade fair, or from the Alternatives Catalog. I don’t have data on what percentage of persons buy gifts from an “alternative” source, nor what percentage of total Christmas dollars are spent that way. I assume the percentage is small.

The cultural combination of A Christmas Carol, The Night Before Christmas, Coke’s Santa Claus, family reunion/reconciliation movies, and the development of a consumer economy and post-institutional religion have conspired to capture Christmas solidly for the two causes for which Christmas does really well: stimulate the economy; cause families to gather, for better and for worse.

Christmas is an economic stimulus—including for Christian congregations and many charitable organizations.

Christmas is an occasion for which families make an effort to assemble, despite physical and emotional distance. And, more often than not, they exchange gifts.

My conclusions? First, there is nothing, per se, wrong, with stimulating an economy, giving gifts, eating special foods, and gathering with friends and family. All these acts can be goods. Second, there is a very tenuous connection between Christmas as celebrated in the U.S. and following the way of Jesus of Nazareth. There is not going to be a stronger connection between the two. Maybe it is time for Christians to deliberate about the best ways to lend support to the cultural festival of Christmas and find other fitting ways to celebrate the birth of Christ.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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