Dan Popp
RIP, Christmas
By Dan Popp
December 8, 2013

When we say that [Confucians or Buddhists] also have temples and idols and priests and periodical festivals, we simply mean that this sort of heathen is enough of a human being to admit the popular element of pomp and pictures and feasts and fairy-tales. We only mean that Pagans have more sense than Puritans. – G.K. Chesterton

As the "War on Christmas" gets more intense (and more absurd) year by year, I find myself wondering whether it's worth the fight. Would it be the end of Western Civilization if Christmas were to go away? No, this isn't one of my lame attempts at satire. Let me start at the beginning.

In the beginning there was no Christmas.

There were Christ and Christians and the Holy Spirit and the Apostles and their epistles and persecution and dispersion and martyrs and the four gospels. There were heretics and disputes. There were defenses and doctrines. Most of all there was movement – growth – life. There were ugly rumors but beautiful testimonies. There was faith, and there was some faithlessness. There were churches, but no church buildings. And no Christmas. Christians had a hard enough time meeting each week on Sunday to celebrate the Resurrection – it's not surprising that they had no real public holidays. It wasn't until AD 336, according to my sources, that we find Christians publicly celebrating the nativity of Christ.

Fast-forward to the beginnings of Christianity in America. Again, there was no Christmas. The Puritans had outlawed it as a papist and pagan holiday.

What's striking about both of these eras and cultures – the birth of Christianity and the birth of Christian America – is that they were far more religious in character than the USA at the close of 2013. And Christmas had no place in them. Oh, those believers believed in the Incarnation, make no mistake about that; but they were focused on the central event of the gospel, which is the Resurrection.

I don't mention these examples because I imagine that the Puritans, or even the primitive Church, got everything right. I'm just observing that the public celebration of Christmas isn't necessarily an indicator of a flourishing and vital form of Christianity in a culture. If I had to choose between persecuted-but-passionate Christianity, and the Winter Holiday formerly known as "Christmas," I would pick the former. Chesterton could call me a senseless Puritan all he wanted.

In my view, those who are trying to "save Christmas" as a cultural activity in the public square are concentrating on a symptom rather than the cause. The cause is clearly the decline of Christianity – no – the decline of the superficial sort of social Christianity that has prevailed since, say, the Second World War. How can I mourn the loss of that?

Now, I'm not blind to the "benefit" side of the ledger. On the one hand, Christmas gives us an appointment once a year to discuss God's invasion of the world. The warmth of family gatherings is a foretaste of the fellowship of heaven. The gifts and the charitable works tied to Christ, however loosely, are infinitely better than government robbery disguised as almsgiving. There's much good even in our postmodern Christmas.

But on the other hand, we have to admit that many of our Christmas traditions are pagan customs, and it's not clear that we have "redeemed" them, rather than them co-opting us. In the Law, when a consecrated item touched something unholy, the unclean thing wasn't made clean; the pure thing was corrupted. And it's jarring to hear the name "Christ" coming from the mouth of someone who hasn't yet repented and believed the gospel. Maybe this is the nugget of everything that bothers me about our contemporary Christmas: It's the perfect snapshot of cultural Christianity – Jesus as a totem beside (or below) Santa Claus, the Grinch and Frosty the Snowman. It is gifts, often, without The Giver. It is the Manger without the Cross.

As someone has pointed out, people love the "baby Jesus" because He makes no demands on them.

Whether the plastic Infant and Virgin Mary and Joseph and Shepherds and Wise Men and Angels and animals survive as annual features on the courthouse lawn isn't really a concern to me, as long as all religions get equal treatment there. What concerns me is the yearly tragedy of people celebrating the birth of Someone they don't yet know; people who have exchanged neckties and electronic games and bath robes, but have left the ultimate Gift unopened.

If all public celebrations of Christmas were banned, there would be no harm to Christianity. Even if all private celebrations of Christmas were to disappear, the Christian faith might be stronger, not weaker. It's happened at least twice before.

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.... (John 1:12, NAS95)

© Dan Popp


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