One can spot many a bumper sticker pleading that we “keep Christ in Christmas,” and there’s always at least a few conservative critics who roundly condemn those companies who offer “holiday” as opposed to “Christmas” greetings in their advertisements.
But truth be told, the battle seems to be lost.
While we used to think of Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, as THE day to begin the shopping binge, the fact is Christmas merchandise moves into stores just as the Fourth of July leftovers move out. By All Saints Day on November 1, the onslaught of ads and the sales teasers is unrelenting. And many stores now stay open on Thanksgiving, forcing employees to give up a day to celebrate home and family. (Maybe we need a new campaign: Keep the “thanks” in Thanksgiving.)
Since most stores make up to 50 percent of their earnings during the holiday season, according to some estimates, one must ask if religious sentiment can withstand the juggernaut of commercial enterprise. After all, sellers hope that people other than Christians will open their wallets. I don’t want to sound like a Marxist, but economics seems to explain everything.
Which brings us, then, to a question: Is it possible in the face of the commercial holiday excess to honor the birth of Jesus Christ as a singular event for the believing community?
Christmas, of course, is one of those complex feast days that has absorbed many elements of Christian culture. Santa Claus — the major if not main character in today’s Christmas pageantry — is a Northern European addition hearkening back to the medieval feast of St. Nicholas, which was celebrated on December 12 and involved giving gifts to children. The gifting aspect later became conflated with Christmas.
The Christmas tree, evergreen garlands and so on came to us via the Germanic custom going back to the ancient Druids. These traditions were introduced into the English speaking world by Queen Victoria’s German consort, Prince Albert, who remembered the custom from his native Germany. Indeed, much of the Christmas pageantry with which we are familiar is a 19th century gift.
(As a side note, it’s interesting that Charles Dickens’ famous 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, with its emphasis on food, merriment, forgiveness and redeeming love never actually mentions the birth of Christ in its admittedly beautiful pages.)
The celebration of the birth of Jesus on December 25 is a relatively late addition to the worship life of the Catholic Church. Sometime in the fifth century, the Roman Church substituted the pagan feast of welcoming the return of the sun after the shortest day of the year with a celebration of the true sun, Christ the light of the world, on that day. In Eastern Christianity, the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 is the great feast.
Nonetheless, Christmas is an important day in the Christian calendar, and Catholics of a certain age will recall the beauty of Midnight Mass (less attended now), the home Christmas crèche, and traditional Christmas foods. The traditional carols and hymns had poignant power until they became only a part of a larger holiday repertoire along with red-nosed reindeer, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and Mama kissing Santa Claus.
There is nothing inherently obnoxious about celebrating the holiday season, and it would be churlish to so insist that’s the case. (Although there is a good American precedent: The Pilgrim fathers strictly forbade Christmas celebrations as being pagan, thus giving strength to Mencken’s famous observation that a Puritan is one who fears that somebody somewhere is having a good time!)
Still and all, there are some ways in which we can save the Christian feast of Christmas. Here are a few suggestions.
First, erect a crèche in each home. The crèche custom can be traced back to St. Francis of Assisi, who initiated the custom in 1223. If each home has a Christmas tree, each Catholic home should have a crèche. Christmas cribs actually illustrate the Gospel story in a compressed fashion. They are sermons in art. I have often seen parents pointing out to their children the figures in the large crib erected in the Lady Chapel of Sacred Heart Basilica on the campus of Notre Dame.
Second, get a handle on gift giving so that a gift becomes a true gift and not a token to pay back an obligation. In the gift purchasing frenzy, think of gifts for the poor and needy. Make their purchase an act that’s done consciously and as a result of a family decision involving children who should be taught to give gifts as well as receive them. One of our newer family traditions is to abstain from exchanging gifts for each other. Our family pools the money to have a family holiday together for a few days. That custom has proven to be extremely satisfactory to all of us.
Third, make an effort to get to a Christmas Mass that is so crowded that the communal singing of Christmas hymns has a swelling resonance. Christmas hymns actually express deep faith when sung together in a way that’s not possible when heard as elevator music in a crowded mall. Furthermore, those hymns are actually prayers, and as St. Augustine once said, he who sings, prays twice.
Finally, have a good time. Rejoicing is only befitting on a Christian holy day whose vocabulary is redolent of “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10), and where we are invited to join the angels to praise God in the heavens and cry out for peace to all (2:13).
After all, we are celebrating the birth of a baby, and who cannot rejoice at such an event.
Lawrence S. Cunningham is John A. O’Brien Professor (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame