As a pastor I often get asked how I feel about “Happy Holidays” vs “Merry Christmas” – or the so-called “War on Christmas.” As one who inherently believes that religious faith is best promoted by people who share that faith, I get uncomfortable when retailers use the name and imagery of my Lord to sell merchandise. Yet it is precisely the selling merchandise that is central to our country’s history of celebrating Christmas.

Christmas in America

The specifics of Christmas in America are complicated. The early Puritans did not celebrate Christmas. The first Congress famously met on Christmas Day in 1789, and Christmas itself was not declared a federal holiday until 1870.

Much of the way we imagine Christmas in this country is based on early 19th century poetry and stories, particularly the writings of Washington Irving and Clement Clarke More, which represented New World adaptations of Old World Saint Nicholas traditions. As early as 1841 a Philadelphia merchant had a man dress-up in a Kris Kringle costume and climb the chimney of his store in a publicity effort.

By the mid-to-late 19th century Christmas was widely celebrated in America, with a growing emphasis on gift-giving and elves, a large man in a red suit and reindeer. Washington Irving’s popular writings made celebration of the home and hearth central to our understanding of Christmas. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, widely read in America by the 1860s, further sentimentalized Christmas as a holiday of kindness and compassion.

Good Cheer, Generosity, and the Hearth … and Jesus?

The imperative to care for the poor and to share gifts surely has roots in Christian tradition and teachings, and Christians should be glad that the wider culture promotes works of charity at this time of year. But it is hard to deny that by the mid-19th century Christmas – the Christ Mass – was branded by a variety of cultural traditions and emphases that had less to do with religious celebrations of the birth of Jesus and more to do with good cheer, generosity, and the comfort of the hearth.

Committed Christians certainly maintained an emphasis on Christ and the Nativity, even as they also adopted many of the trappings of the cultural celebration of Christmas. [Perhaps for another blogpost – there is great variety among Christians in how they celebrate Christmas today, let alone how – or even if – they did so several hundred years ago.] Indeed, Christmas has come to have at least two distinct expressions, one cultural and one religious. These two expressions have not had a wall of separation between them, but instead have at times blended both at home and in public. As Americans who are also Christians – as Christians who are also Americans – we should expect that our Christmas celebrations embrace a bit of both.

As Christmas became a widely-celebrated cultural holiday, Christians had access to the town square for caroling and religious displays, and have stood by proudly as town fathers read official Christmas proclamations. For a period of time explicitly religious commemorations of Christmas received the blessing of civic officials, standing alongside the less explicitly religious, cultural celebrations of Christmas. But it would be a mistake to confuse the proximity of the Baby Jesus to Santa Claus in the town square display as a widespread embrace of the religious nature of the holiday.

“Put Christ back in Christmas”?

Christ has had an uncertain relationship with public Christmas celebrations from the very start of our American Christmas traditions. I’m pretty sure that 1840s Kris Kringle on the side of a store in Philadelphia had little to do with Christ. While certainly families and churches have set – and continue to set – Jesus in the center of their Christmas celebrations, I’m not sure there was ever too much Christ in the public, cultural Christmas in the first place.

In recent decades Americans have begun to make less frequent use of the word “Christmas” in the public square, and instead we often speak of the “holidays” and of the “magic of the season.” Perhaps this shift in language is simply a long-awaited acknowledgment that many people in our society do not celebrate Christmas, and that many who do celebrate Christmas do so more as a cultural celebration of generosity and gift-giving than an explicitly religious reflection on the birth of Christ. Even for we who strive to mark Christmas as a religious holy day, gift-giving and holiday customs can often overshadow the nativity scene that rests on our windowsill.

The Reason for the Season

We live in a changing world. Christians can and will continue to celebrate the birth of Christ with or without stores wishing us a “Merry Christmas” or the city sponsoring a “Christmas festival” filled with elves and snowmen. In fact, this might even be preferable. My hope is that the Christ Mass would be most closely associated not with elves or even gift-giving, but with the birth of God’s Son, Jesus, who brings good news to a world that so desperately needs it.

Whatever our many Christmas celebrations include, may they ultimately draw us closer to the manger of Bethlehem. In that lowly manger our Lord Jesus is born into a broken world to share our humanity, show us a more perfect way of life, and give us the hope of the Kingdom of God. This, dear friends, is the reason for the season.

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