“War on Christmas”? How About “War on Cultural Milieux”?

Knights of Columbus display…

The “reason for the season?”  That meme is finding itself on more and more lips lately.  Every year, around this time, there is a debate as to how much influence religion, secularism, or paganism have on the definition of the phrase.  Some of the more driven activists in the atheist community launch campaigns to remove “Christmas” from the language of businesses and state officials. Faithful Christians, on the other hand, counter these campaigns with their own ‘Keep Christ in Christmas‘ slogans.  Others publish books or write on websites about the pagan roots of Christianity and, especially, Christmas as if the very fact alone will topple faith.  But these promotions miss the point, don’t they?

And there is no greater example of completely missing the point than the use of language in the debate.  “War”?  Really?  A “war” on Christmas; as if there were two or more opposing sides in conflict over the definition of whether something was cooked well or medium-rare.  Worse, this war is not just one based upon the meaning of a period of time (roughly from Thanksgiving to New Years) but, apparently, it is waged culturally.   When one thinks of the “reason for the season”, I certainly hope they don’t think of red-faced, over-caffeinated, talking-heads (pundits) or cultural slander; how does that (or even listening to that) “save” the season?  Yet this is precisely what the many who are waging this “war” would have you believe: there are opposing sides, so pick one and grab a gun (figurative–I hope!) and charge!  To remain unsympathetic to a side is to be apathetic and you might as well surrender or get out of the way.

This brings up an interesting case-in-point for a blog article I wrote a few weeks back on historical ownership and cultural identity.  In a way, this subject is very relevant to that article.  Isn’t this “war” nothing but a disagreement over who “owns” this season?  One side claims, through supposition, the season is owned by a past that preceded Christianity and another side by the supposition that its traditions are more relevant than those which came before.  In some sense, Christianity was not the first to champion this season as a religious holiday–that is true.  Sol Invictus did come before, but it was not a universal pagan celebration until late antiquity, so while the argument might have weight, it still misses the point.  After all, do we worship Serapis, Isis, or Sol Invictus Deus?  Of course not, and neither do Christians.  One might make the argument that the Jesus fish has traditional roots in a pagan fertility symbol portraying the female nether-regions, but how relevant is that to the Christians who put them on their cars?  The only time such a mention might be relevant is when one comes into contact with someone who still worships those gods/goddesses.  Since finding those worshipers are quite rare, is it really an accurate perspective to claim that they are ‘the reason for the season?’  I don’t think so.

It reminds me of a poem by Rudolf Bultmann on just this issue (emphasis mine):


Why is it that we light candles at Christmas and take joy in
their splendor? Whatever the historical causes for this custom,
they are no longer effective for us. But does this mean, then,
that the splendor of the Christmas lights has become merely
a festal ornament that somehow belongs to the joyous mood of
the holiday? Is it dear to us because as we look at it memories
are awakened — memories that reach all the way back to our
childhood and are at once sad and happy? Certainly this is so.
But is this the only reason or the decisive one?

Whoever is asked why we light candles at Christmas will
surely say, if he reflects on it, that the answer is not far to
seek; the lights that we kindle are a symbol of the Light — the
Light that is spoken of in these lines:

The eternal Light there enters the world,
And gives it a new appearance.
It shines brightly in the middle of the night
And makes all of us children of light.

In that case, however, the splendor of the light not only
makes us happy in an aesthetic and sentimental sense, but
rather, as a symbol, has something to say to us — is, so to
speak, a word addressed to us. But what is it that this world
would tell us? Just this, that “the eternal Light” wants to
shine into our dark world.

(Bultmann, trans. Schubert M. Ogden, Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann [New York: Meridian Books, 1960], 278)

Black Friday mob...

In his way which many of us have come to enjoy, Bultmann subtly reminds us of the reality behind the veil, that is to say, the truth exists as part of the culture in which we live–not, as some might argue, a culture which has passed.  While that historical stem–whatever it may be–has perhaps influence over the synchronic period in which we live, it has little or no bearing at all on the traditions we practice today.  What matters is how we interpret them and understand them in our own time, in our own individual manner.  It just so happens that, in this melting-pot of a country, there is not just one interpretation but many.  These interpretations are largely founded upon our own cultural milieux.  So in a large sense, both sides of this war are not really fighting a war on Christmas, but a war of ideology and, ultimately, one which pits culture against culture, sans the individual, modern implications of such a war.

In a large way, the secular movement is a relatively new cultural scene.  It’s roots run through the history of the country, of enlightenment, but not so deep as the milieux of the many Christianities.  That is not to say that the movement is not welcome, nor that it does not have its own place within the framework of the season, but it does seem to me–as someone who has at one time been apart of the movement and now as someone who is an outsider–that atheists, primarily those who fight so avowedly against “Christmas”, have the most difficult time realizing their place in it, as well as the place with which Christianity holds.  To say that, ad hoc, the Solstice is the reason for the season, or that this or that festival is the reason is about as realistic or rational as claiming that St. Valentine is the reason we give little hearts that taste like tums to people in which we have romantic interests.  I would say that the value we give to the celebration of love on February 14th has absolutely nothing to do with the historical implications and realities (whatever those may be) of the death of a Saint.

We can thank Corporate America and the Victorian Period for whatever modern Christmas concept (or, for the sake of continued comparison, Valentines Day concept) we now possess.  The Romanticism of Christmas can’t be overlooked (and I mean that in the most definitive sense).  This is perhaps why modern secular movements to bring “the season” to Reason can’t find footing; Romanticism is the rejection of rationalism and the embracing of all things transcendental.  What is more transcendental, more personal, than the American idea of Christmas?  When it comes down to it, we give hearts and chocolate and flowers to those we care about on Valentines Day, regardless of what footing came before, because it’s fun and sometimes we enjoy the time we share, because we make it special for ourselves and our significant others (at least we do try).  On Christmas, we–as individuals and as a country–celebrate a special time of year.  We each have our own reasons, but one cannot deny the cheer, the fun, and the time with family, all belief aside.

This is perhaps why this “war on Christmas” is a silly endeavor; not just on the part of atheists but on the part of Christians as well. The phrase “Happy Holidays” has its place, but so does “Merry Christmas”–the fact of the matter is, what “Christmas” is today is really a great deal different than Sol Invictus.  In point of fact, we live in a completely different empire, with its own laws, rules, culture, and social challenges.  Whether or not we choose to celebrate a religious holiday, whether one person chooses to use language which they feel best describes their feelings about the season, should be the furthest thing from our minds–it is by far the least of our worries, next to perhaps whether or not we’re running low on napkins.  Might the use of certain language be marked an inconvenience for some?  Yes, I’m sure there are those among us who are just bloody well annoyed with the language of the season, the religious implications, and certain songs on the radio.  But in truth, your right to be offended makes little difference when compared to the broader impressions that a culture war can bring.  Do we really need to be facilitating more fear, more pain, more discomfort in a world which has its own share of all of those?  Is it really that important?

James McGrath recently wrote on this subject in response to a recent billboard unveiled in New Jersey.  He writes:

Here’s my first thought about the billboard and reactions to it: People have a right to feel offended at the billboard, and those who put up the billboard have the right to offend them. We have no legal right to live free from feeling offended. There are religious billboards all over the place, and some of those seem offensive even to me as a Christian, never mind to anyone else. One of the great things about the United States is the way it protects our freedom to say things that others find offensive. Without such freedom, Biblical scholarship would be facing constant legal objections from people who do not want their comfortable but mistaken ideas about the Bible challenged by those who have actually studied the Bible in greater detail.

Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, or Kris Kringle?

What James expresses in his article is something perhaps overlooked in the atheist activist community.  I want to avoid the possible conclusion that I am somehow taking a position of neutrality.  In fact, I am no hardliner on either end; but my position is far from neutral in the sense that I might be apathetic.  I am also far from that.  Yet I do not agree with either side of the debate–not the ardent atheists and not the faithful Christians.  While I recognize that both have clear-cut goals, some more reasonable than others, there is no glossing over the complications of culture in a “war” (rather than a discussion) like this.  Both sides are right about representation, but in certain instances, both are also completely wrong.  When you attempt to make Christmas about something other than what it has already become, you isolate yourselves and, not to mention, end up discriminating against multiple cultures in the process.  The hard fact of this season is that you cannot replace one interpretation with another.  Everyone needs representation to a degree and Happy Holidays covers that.  But we must never forget that this season, whether we like it or not, is the Christmas season–and it is for us, not the Romans, lest we forget.  We are built upon this and there is no way around it.  This season is forever intertwined with that reality and “Christmas” deserves its due.  What we can control is our understanding of what that means for us, individually, culturally.  For some it means something more faith-inclined and for others, like myself, it symbolizes what I love about this country and, of course, what I love about being human.

So instead of forcing those jolly (sometimes) men in big red suits out of their jobs at malls and department stores and shelters, instead of forcing Christians to think about their own interpretations of Christians differently, we should be working towards the goal of mutual understanding.  Dual representation of this season is the only option and the only way to preserve all cultural identities of all walks of life.  Do not seek to actively replace ‘Christmas’ with ‘Happy Holidays’, nor try to do away with the real fact that other Americans hold different beliefs.  Instead, we need some measure of sanity: signs bearing both should be side by side, not held in a way which attempts to cover the other.

Also, I hold that if you want to show your own stance, why not take yourselves to a soup kitchen, to a shelter, volunteer, give to charity, and show your mettle.  Instead of criticizing each other, spend that energy in more positive pursuits.



8 Responses

  1. I have a few issues here.
    1. you said that, “Romanticism is the rejection of rationalism and the embracing of all things transcendental.” I don’t agree with you here. I think romanticism can be rational. I am not sure why you would claim otherwise.
    2. Your view seems to be that everyone should suck it up and celebrate the Christmas of today which has changed from some other interpretation in the past. But you seem to forget that today’s interpretation may be changing to some other interpretation tomorrow. In fact, it may have already changed. As Heraclitus would say, you can’t step int the same river even once.” Christmas is continually changing as we speak.
    3. As I talk about in my article (http://exm.nr/gKU5Qe), the reason for the season to not be depressed. It is a very human reason and so we celebrate. It doesn’t matter what we celebrate or why, the celebration is the important part. Call it Christmas, or Hanukkah, Solstice, Human Light, Festivus, or Holiday, it doesn’t matter.

  2. Per your list:

    1. Romanticism can’t be rational; the whole concept behind romanticism is that it counters practicality. Are we both talking about the dictionary definition here? I know I am.

    2. Then tomorrow we celebrate that variant. The beauty of culture is that it constantly changes and society, as a result, with it assimilates. But it doesn’t change overnight in a large scale situation, unless something dramatic or tragic occurs. Christmas has changed, in fact, and we see that in its consumerism and marketability. But it has changed over decades, not months. And in fact it has gone more towards consumerism than fundamentalism, and most people in this country–Christian or other–don’t really seem to mind. I’m quite happy assimilating into Christmas traditions. In fact I recently decorated a tree with my girlfriend while listening to holiday music. It was a blast. And I wholeheartedly look forward to family get-togethers this weekend, a tradition in which, as I’m sure, you might even participate.

    4. I completely agree. That is my point, Staks. These are not competing traditions–they are traditions which exist as part of our assimilated culture. Instead of “fighting Christmas” or waging wars on cultural heritage, we need to embrace that these traditions exist and are here to stay and, in many ways, do what we do with every other part of culture–reinvent it for ourselves, make it relevant. That is part of being a productive participant within a society. Otherwise you risk isolating yourself. What good are you really doing for humanity then?

  3. FYI, on Romanticism: http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html

    Edit: As a philosophy bent upon dramatically altering society’s views of itself, it cannot be based upon rationalism or practicality. The latter are formulated upon scientific method which is far too stringent in its changes, following specific guidelines and regulated by peer review. Dramatic upheavals of perspective are achieved often through emotional or perceived metaphysical means. Stagnancy is the enemy of Romanticism.

    Hamby’s blog on the subject: http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/2010/12/20/holidays-culture-and-assimilation/

  4. 1. On the subject of Romanticism, it seemed like you were
    using the less academic and more popular use of the term. That is
    what I was disputing. I think the idea of romance and romanticism
    in that context can certainly be rational. I’m don’t know if I
    would call it scientific, but Sam Harris might be able to make a
    case for that. 2. I think the tradition is continually changing
    every day. Many in the greater atheistic community are working hard
    to share the holiday tradition to something we feel comfortable
    with. I don’t have a problem with that. I too have decorated a tree
    with ornaments (although I didn’t when I was younger). It is
    something my wife grew up with even though her parents are not
    really religious. She likes the tradition and I have no objections.
    But next year I will be putting up a Tree of Knowledge in our house
    with the Christmas Tree. 3. It is important to note that the “War
    on Christmas” was a Christian creation. While some atheists like to
    play with that phrase, few atheists really consider it a war. I
    think the vast majority of activist atheists don’t want to replace
    Christmas, but we do want to find a place for us with Christmas.
    Just my thoughts.

  5. Staks, I think we need to be aware of something intrinsic to war, if you’ll pardon the metaphor. When one side starts bombing the other, there’s a war going on. It doesn’t matter who started it. The other side can choose not to retaliate in any particular battle, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a war. It’s just a political distinction.

    I agree with you 100%. The War on Christmas is more about Bill O’Reilly than Sam Harris. It’s a Christian caricature of most of the atheist holiday efforts. However, American Atheists puts up anti-religious holiday billboards. We have T-Shirts printed for the occasion. Facebook is full of “Merry Christmyth” posts and groups and so forth. There are volleys flying from both sides, regardless of who started it.

    For the most part, I’m with Tom. If you want to celebrate, celebrate. Of course, don’t let me or anyone else tell you that you have to celebrate. That’s the whole point. I’m tired of being told that I’m a bad atheist if I celebrate this or that holiday, or put up a tree, or whatever. Atheists who celebrate holidays are part of the redefinition of holiday meaning, and if we forgo the opportunity for redefinition, then we’re guilty of letting the Christians have it their way. And that’s fine if it’s what we choose to do, but we can’t have it both ways

    Here’s my article, by the way:

  6. Hamby, I think we are all on the same page here. I don’t think anyone (except maybe Tom Flynn) is suggesting that we don’t celebrate anything. This is as you said, a Christian caricature of atheists. While I am not a huge fan of Richard Dawkins (as a spokes person for atheism) even he recently talked about his love of Christmas. The “Merry Christmyth” and similar sayings are more of a tongue and cheek kind of thing rather than some sort of moral outrage like O’Reilly has torwards “Happy Holidays.” I must admit that even I sent out “Hell-a-day” cards, but it is a joke. As I wrote in my recent article, it doesn’t much matter what someone celebrates, the reason for the celebration is not really religious:

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