Just in time for Christmas 2017, the Pew Research Center released the results of a survey that found that 56 percent of Americans believe that the “religious parts of Christmas” are emphasized less in the United States today than they were in the past. It’s hard to argue otherwise: Even many of those who have beat the drums over the “War on Christmas” for almost a decade and a half have often portrayed the celebration of Christmas, at least within the public square, as little more than a national holiday, descended from Americans’ historic Christian faith but no longer exclusively tied to it. While such a portrayal may have started out as just a legal and p.r. tactic designed to bolster the counterattack in the War on Christmas, the fact that only 31 percent of respondents in the Pew survey regard the deemphasizing of the religious nature of Christmas as a problem suggests that this secularist and nationalist narrative has been broadly accepted even by Christians.
There was a time when, in the face of such depressing news, I would have found solace in another number in the Pew survey: 90 percent of all Americans say that they celebrate Christmas in some way. Because Christianity is an incarnational religion, the symbols and customs attached to the celebration of Christmas always carry a deeper meaning, whether or not those who use the symbols or observe the customs are conscious of that meaning. In his 1990 autobiography Confessions of an Original Sinner, the greatest American historian of the twentieth century, John Lukacs, expresses his irritation at the trite bumpersticker slogan “The family that prays together stays together.” Rather, he says, the opposite is more likely to be true: The family that stays together prays together (by the very act of staying together). That inversion reflects Lukacs’s deeply incarnational understanding of history, a product of his Catholic faith. So it is no surprise that, in the same book, Lukacs expresses a personal preference for Christmas over Easter. Though he acknowledges that Easter is the more important Christian holiday, Christmas is the preeminent feast of the Incarnation.
I have always shared Lukacs’s preference for Christmas, which is why, when I was younger, I would have found the news that 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas (even shorn of its religious nature) heartening. About the time that the counterattack in the War on Christmas was ramping up, however, I began to have second thoughts. I realized that one thing tied together an increasing number of those who argued that Americans should “Keep Christ in Christmas” with the proponents of the secular celebration of Christmas and the advocates of a generic “holiday season” that extended from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day—namely, the complete elimination of the season of Advent, the period of preparation for the coming of Christ. Many of the counterrevolutionaries in the War on Christmas fought back by starting to play Christmas music as soon as Thanksgiving dinner was over, and erecting their Christmas trees on Black Friday. The sense of hope and expectation that had characterized Advent even as late as the mid-1980s (at least in my little village in West Michigan) had been replaced by dueling “holiday” and Christmas seasons, both of which were over before the true Christmas season, from Christmas Day to Candlemas (the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, February 2), or at least to the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord (January 6), had even begun.
A sense of hope and expectation wasn’t all that was lost. The purpose of Advent has always been to prepare for both comings of Christ—his first coming, as a Child in a manger in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, and his Second Coming, at the end of time. And the preparation for his Second Coming always had a penitential aspect to it. Advent was a time of fasting and of prayer, a “little Lent” that, in its symbols and customs, reflected the penitential nature of the period of preparation for Easter. For decades now, however, that penitential aspect has been downplayed, and even the purple vestments that tie Advent to Lent have been replaced in many parishes with vestments of white or (bizarrely) blue. The rich Advent hymnody that reflects the traditional understanding of the season has too often been reduced to “O Come O Come Emmanuel”—a great hymn with a thousand-year history that, nonetheless, fades into background noise with its ritual overuse.
With the loss of Advent as a penitential season came a decoupling, in both the secular and the Christian imagination, of the feast of Christ’s first coming with the anticipation of his second. And that, I would argue, explains the relative lack of concern, even among Christians, about the deemphasizing of the religious nature of Christmas in recent years. And it does not bode well for a revival of that religious nature, because while the Incarnation by itself may have historical or philosophical significance, without the Second Coming the Christian story is incomplete: The Babe in the manger never becomes the King descending from Heaven to judge the quick and the dead.
The celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ is an ancient feast, but not as ancient as the commemoration of his death and the celebration of his Resurrection. And so it is no surprise that in the symbols of Christmas the shadow of the Cross has always fallen on the manger. The stable, especially in Eastern Christian imagery and liturgy, is a cave, like the one in which Christ’s body would be laid. The swaddling clothes in which he is wrapped at birth prefigure his burial shroud. As nativity scenes developed in the West, the donkey on which Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday became an essential fixture, even though (as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out several years ago) the animal’s presence in the stable is not mentioned in any of the gospels. The angel who appeared to the shepherds to announce Christ’s birth stretched out his arms in the shape of a cross and held a scroll reminiscent of the one that Pilate would order to be nailed to the instrument of our Savior’s death. The star that led the Wise Men in their quest for the King of the Jews was traditionally depicted as four- or eight-pointed, with the four primary points in the shape of the Cross.
“The whole life of Christ,” wrote John Donne in his Christmas Sermon of December 25, 1626, “was a continuall Passion; others die Martyrs, but Christ was born a Martyr … His birth and his death were but one continuall act, and his Christmas-day and his Good Friday, are but the evening and morning of one and the same day.”
There is no room for such a Christ in a Christmas shorn of its “religious parts,” which means that there is no room for the true Christ at all, because there was one and only one Christ who did come—the Christ who was not just born for our salvation, but died for us, and rose from the dead, and who will one day come again. There is no room for the Christ of whom Saint Stephen, the preeminent model of Christian charity (as the first deacon) and of Christian faith (as the first martyr), testified, “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). There is no room for the Christ who prefigured his own resurrection by raising Lazarus from the dead, after telling his sister Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, although he be dead, shall live: And every one that liveth, and believeth in me, shall not die for ever” (John 11:25-26).
There is room only for a child who never grows up, who spends his life in a manger carefully packed away by New Year’s Eve, to be brought out again on the day after Thanksgiving. But that child can never be the Child.
In the first four days after Christmas, as we toss our trees unceremoniously to the curb and turn our thoughts to neo-Pelagian secular salvation in the form of New Year’s resolutions, the Church reminds us that the Child in the manger is the Man who died for us on the Cross. He is the Son of Man in witness to whom Saint Stephen died, and for whom Saint John the Evangelist suffered so greatly that his feast is treated like that of a martyr though he died a natural death, and in whose place the Holy Innocents were slaughtered, and for whose sake St. Thomas Becket was martyred. In this very deliberate choice of feasts, the Church reminds us that the birth of Jesus brought hope to the world, but his death made that hope a reality.
What the Pew Research Center’s survey tells us (if we have eyes to see and ears to hear) is that no matter how many Americans celebrate Christmas, or say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays,” the War on Christmas is already over—unless and until we begin once again to look at the Child in the manger and see the Man on the Cross.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “The Triumph of Christianity Over Paganism” painted by Gustave Doré in 1899.