Revisiting the War on Christmas

Like Leslie Nielsen’s famous advice as the building explodes behind him—“OK, move on, nothing to see here, please disperse”—so The New York Times assures us that there’s nothing to the war on Christmas except, perhaps, Republican partisanship. “From the beginning, the War on Christmas was a homegrown Fox News cause, introduced by the so-named 2005 book by John Gibson, a former Fox News host, and promoted annually by Bill O’Reilly,” we are assured by nonpartisan Amy Sullivan, author of the 2008 book The Party Faithful about “how and why Democrats are closing the God gap.” The war on Christmas is just a plot to gain ratings, sales, and votes, apparently stolen from those who will close the “God gap” by their demonstrated hearty welcome of the “basket of deplorables” who still “cling to guns or religion.”

Sullivan augurs dire outcomes because

the War on Christmas has moved one of the holiest Christian days out of the church and into the secular realm. That may suit conservative activists who promote Christian nationalism and want to see Christianity officially dominate the public sphere. But at a time when a new Pew Research Center study shows that only about half of those Americans who celebrate Christmas plan to do so as a religious holiday, the War on Christmas may be damaging Christian witness by elevating performative secular practices.

Now I don’t deny that a Christian first needs to get his own house in order. Hypocrisy is most toxic to religion: Vatican II reminds us that disbelief in God comes not just from theoretical proponents of atheism but also from “practical atheism,” those who profess Christianity on their lips but not in their lives. As Pope Paul VI reminded us, the best teachers are witnesses.

But ah, those “performative practices.” Catholicism is not a religion of quietism and retires to the sacristy only under duress. As Karol Wojtyła reminded us in Sources of Renewal, “mission” and “Christian responsibility” are essential “attitudes” of living the faith today: one does not hide one’s faith beneath a bushel basket.

The contemporary Left would have us believe that, if we hold internally to our convictions and not try to push them into the public square, all will be well. It is a misguided Christian project to move Christmas “out of the church and into the secular realm.”

Now I don’t expect the contemporary Left to tell homosexual activists to hold internally to their convictions and give up their pursuit to compel Christian bakers to make them “wedding” cakes. It is indeed a strange world in which the one religion that claims a place on the public square, to the absolute exclusion of all others, is secularism. “The rival church of secularism seeks no … comity, as today’s unprecedented attacks on Christian schools, charities, colleges, and other works go to show. The new church of secularism serves as very jealous god,” observes Mary Eberstadt in January’s First Things. (See also here.) When the Left establishes the religious test of “no religion” as the price of participation in public life, we can only say, non possumus.

The same Times that counsels us against letting Christmas into the secular realm also reported that Christmas in America is also becoming more secular: barely half of those polled by Pew say they planned to attend a religious service on Christmas, while more than a quarter objected to religious displays like Nativity scenes in public spaces. The rise of “nones,” especially among the young, affects these numbers. They seem especially to want a “nice” God, a non-judgmental, non-challenging, non-directive Deity, one happy we are enjoying his creation on a ski slope rather than a stuffy sanctuary, “a God who comes in many flavors, all of which are bland”—in short, a non-God, a Santa.

Indeed, while we are told there’s “nothing to see here,” the Times also included a third op-ed, “At the Solstice, in Praise of Darkness.” Author Mark Vanhoenacker notes that the first day of winter is also the shortest day of the year but, unlike those who first began to celebrate that Sol Invictus overcame the darkness, he counsels “[h]owever we may celebrate the return of light to our skies and lives … we might also wish to pause to honor the darkness that will give way to it.” I’ll take my counsel from John 1: 9-11 and John 3:19 regarding the Son who finally overcame the darkness.

Indeed, Vanhoenacker quotes poet Annie Finch about how “the solstice accounts for late December’s rich spiritual bottleneck of festivities and traditions in so much of the ancient and modern world.” Paganism is chic, whether it be celebrating the Winter Solstice or the frisson of the essentially barbaric world of Game of Thrones. Dare I recall, back in the 1980s, the various Irish intellectuals who waxed poetic about the snakes and little people and Druids of old Ireland and how St. Patrick spoiled everything with his triumphant Christianity? Is there any nexus between that pagan nostalgia and rising anti-Christianity?

Sorry, Amy, but there is a war out there against Christmas. The Times tells us that moderns have problems believing the Christmas story. Well, I recall that my old friend, the late William May, who used to teach moral theology at The Catholic University of America, first began writing about Christology before he made his contributions to Catholic sexual ethics. And that was no accident, because the two go together: if you don’t take seriously the Love that is the Word made Flesh—“true God and true man”—neither will you take seriously the life-giving love that human flesh is meant to serve. Charles Wesley put it bluntly yet eloquently, in language not dumbed down by modern translators: “Offspring of a Virgin’s womb//Veiled in flesh the Godhead see//hail the incarnate Deity//Pleased as man with man to dwell//Jesus our Emmanuel!”

So, yes, be firm in your faith. Say “Merry Christmas!” And know that the truth of Christmas itself is an opportunity for evangelization. Because we are not just in danger of losing this idea of sexual morality or that expression of liturgical practice. We live on the threshold of an age that savors pushing Christianity and its real heritage out of North American public life and culture. Yeats foresaw it 98 years ago: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere// the ceremony of innocence is drowned//the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity//and what rough beast … slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

John M. Grondelski

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John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.

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