The War on Christmas
One of the signature features of Western politics in the last few decades is the rise of the cultural Marxism known as "political correctness." As advocated by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, leftists have worked their way through the institutions of the West, leaving a trail of cultural devastation in their wake. A hallmark of political correctness has been a push for what is commonly called "multiculturalism" but what is actually a virulent anticulturalism—an aggressive attempt to strip Western culture of its traditional underpinnings, and especially its Christian roots, and leave nothing in their place. In the United States, the most surprising and striking aspect of this cultural Marxism has been what author Peter Brimelow first termed the "War Against Christmas” and what others later called the “War on Christmas.” In a nutshell, public observances formerly associated with Christmas are either being suppressed, renamed, or watered down with references to other, formerly obscure winter festivals.
Americans of my age, or older, grew up with a far different public celebration of Christmas. I was born in 1964. Of course, my memories of my family Christmases are warm ones. But I also fondly remember the public celebrations of Christmas. In my public elementary school, we made Christmas ornaments and Christmas cards, sang Christmas carols, and ate Christmas cookies. In junior high, our Christmas concert introduced me to more wonderful Christmas music, including a portion of Bach's Christmas Oratorio and Pietro Yon's "Gesu Bambino." "Merry Christmas" was a universal greeting, Christmas carolers were regular visitors in our neighborhood and Christmas choirs were regular features in department stores, and the profusion of decorations adorning all manner of stores left no doubt as to what holiday everyone was celebrating. Local radio stations would air Christmas music throughout December, and the most popular station in town would air commercial free Christmas music from 6:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve until the end of Christmas Day. Television was filled with Christmas specials, and even the most secular shows almost invariably featured workmanlike and even reverent performances of some hallowed carols. The Christmas I remember was a special and wonderful time of year, marked by kindness and good cheer, with its myriad celebrations all viewed as ultimately stemming from the birth of the One who, in Dickens’ words, “made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” No one I knew was bothered by the effusive celebration of a national holiday observed by the overwhelming majority of Americans. The only concerns of which I was aware were admonitions against the commercialization of Christmas and to "keep Christ in Christmas."
Such concerns now seem somewhat quaint. As Don Feder has observed, "Today, the challenge is to keep Christmas in Christmas." We now have "holiday cards," "holiday parties," "holiday songs," "holiday trees,” and even commercials about a pet’s “first holiday.” In order to avoid giving offense to anyone anywhere, millions of Americans are now seemingly content to keep quiet about the holiday they do celebrate and to act as if all sorts of other minor festivals—Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Bodhi Day, Diwali, the winter solstice—are equally important. It has reached the point where wishing someone a "Merry Christmas" is a political act, not a friendly commonplace.
My first introduction to the anti-Christmas mania that has engulfed America occurred in college. In 1984, a suitemate and I attempted to introduce Christmas cheer to our dormitory by putting up a Christmas tree and nativity scene. Unfortunately, our suite also housed prospective students visiting the campus, and we were told the crèche had to go, lest a prospective non-Christian student take offense.
Law school was no better. In 1988, the new dean of the Michigan Law School, now the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, issued an edict to the law-school student singing group, the Headnotes, declaring that they could not sing any Christmas music at the school's end-of-semester gathering. This prohibition covered not just religious carols, but any song that even mentioned the word "Christmas."
Of course, the desire to suppress Christmas is scarcely confined to higher education. My sisters' children attend public elementary school in an affluent Detroit suburb. In that suburban system, which has a student body that is overwhelmingly white and (at least nominally) Christian, teachers are forbidden to mention Christmas. Instead, they teach about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. So thorough was the indoctrination that my oldest nephew, when he was in first grade, asked why we did not celebrate Hanukkah or Kawnzaa. He knew about Christmas, of course, but was understandably concerned that he was missing out on something, since the only holidays he heard about outside the home were absent from our family celebrations.
Things haven’t gotten any better. Just this week, my sister told me about the “winter pageant” a younger nephew just participated in. There was no mention of Jesus, Christmas, or even Santa Claus. Instead, the children sang about mittens and my nephew participated as a “sky bear,” whatever that is.
Some elementary school teachers have chosen a less direct assault on Christmas, diminishing its importance by presenting it as merely one of an ever-growing list of seemingly equal and interchangeable holidays rather than obliterating all mention of it, as shown by an elementary school “holiday concert” a friend’s son participated yet. In this school system, the great majority of students are white and Christian, yet only two Christmas carols were sung, and one of them was "Feliz Navidad." This small concession to Christmas was more than outweighed by the two Kwanzaa songs, the two Hanukkah songs, the Ramadan song, and the Chinese New Year song the children also performed. (I suspect that all the non-Christmas songs are recent concoctions, written for such dreary occasions as contemporary public school "winter concerts.")
Another illustration of the multicultural madness came from a friend whose daughter attended public school in another suburb that is overwhelmingly white and Christian. She brought home an exercise designed to help the children learn to tell time. The exercise featured the following "holiday schedule" for a "winter holiday party":
- Make Kawnzaa mkekas: 12:00 noon
- Make Christmas cookies: 12:30 p.m.
- Listen to a story about Ramadan: 1:00 p.m.
- Play the dreidel game: 1:30 p.m.
- Break a piñata: 2:00 p.m.
- Make Diwali powder designs: 2:30 p.m.
- Go on a Chinese New Year parade: 3:00 p.m.
As shown by these examples, a hallmark of the War Against Christmas is an aggressive multiculturalism that has elevated a variety of formerly obscure or even non-existent festivals into faux Christmases, principally Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but also Diwali, Bodhi Day, the Birth of Guru Gobind Singh, Dongji, the Chinese New Year and, depending on when it falls, Ramadan. The reason for the elevation of these holidays is their proximity to Christmas, not their cultural significance or intrinsic worth. Indeed, Kwanzaa was invented in 1966, Hanukkah is traditionally a very minor holiday (with no basis in the canonical Hebrew Bible), and the other holidays were virtually unknown in America until a few short years ago. Despite their recent provenance—at least as faux-Christmases—these holidays are now treated as coequals of Christmas, with public figures sure to pepper any of the increasingly rare mentions of Christmas with references to at least some of these other holidays.
The desire to efface Christmas that lies behind the elevation of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and all the rest is illustrated by the New York City schools, which ban Nativity scenes but regularly display menorahs and Moslem crescents. Nor did the New York City schools try to rectify this when their hostility to Christianity was challenged in the courts. Instead, they vigorously defended the ban, claiming that the “suggestion that a crèche is a historically accurate representation of an event with secular significance is wholly disingenuous.” The birth of the most important figure in history carries no weight in New York City, nor does the fact that the birth was first depicted in a crèche by another seminal historical figure, an itinerant friar from Assisi named Francis. It does not take a belief in the divinity of Christ or the sanctity of Francis to recognize their tremendous impact on the history and culture of the West. Apparently, though, the multiculturalists are eager to promote every culture but our own.
That the War Against Christmas is part of a broader war against Western culture is also shown by an entry to VDARE.COM’s War Against Christmas competition submitted by a friend of mine. The Columbus, Ohio schools banned a performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” which had been the highlight of the school year at a specialized school for the arts for the prior nine years. The performance would have violated the district’s religious music policy, which came into being as the result of an ACLU lawsuit. According to the Columbus Dispatch the policy stipulated that the proportion of religious music performed in concert be no more than 30%, and that the performance of religious music be “based on sound curricular reasons” and not “manifest a preference for religion or particular religious beliefs.” The educational bureaucrats who devised the policy, trying to be helpful, suggested the students perform “Frosty the Snowman” or “Jingle Bells” instead of Handel. The bureaucrats’ ignorance and philistinism is appalling, though characteristic of those waging the War Against Christmas. After hearing “Messiah” performed in London, Haydn was moved to exclaim “Handel is the master of us all!” and to write his own great oratorio, “The Creation.” But, in today’s climate of “sensitivity” and “tolerance,” beauty and artistic merit are scarcely a sufficient warrant for exposing delicate ears to the name of Christ.
In the English-speaking world, the writer most closely associated with Christmas is Charles Dickens. But the writer who most clearly foresaw the tactics that mark the War Against Christmas was George Orwell. Long before the advent of political correctness, Orwell wrote, “Freedom is the freedom to say 2 + 2 = 4. If that is granted, all else follows.” I was reminded of Orwell’s great insight by a skirmish in the War Against Christmas at a private school east of my hometown, Cleveland, recounted to me by a friend whose son attended the school.
A seventh grader there made the mistake of saying that two plus two equals four: he called the decorated tree in his homeroom a “Christmas tree.” When I was in seventh grade, such a statement would have been as controversial as saying the sky is blue. After all, Christmas is the holiday that causes tens of millions of Americans to celebrate by putting up decorated trees.
But, at this school, students are required to say that two plus two equals five: the decorated tree must be referred to as a “holiday tree.” Because of his insistence on speaking the truth, this seventh grader was labeled an “anti-Semite” and a “Nazi” by classmates. Far from reprimanding the students who absurdly equated Christmas with Nazism, the teacher threatened to discipline the seventh grader if he persisted in calling the decorated tree by its actual name. He was also warned that he must not wish anyone a “Merry Christmas.” Needless to say, this bit of nastiness was justified on the Orwellian grounds of “diversity” and “tolerance.”
It is a common misconception that the War Against Christmas follows from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the principle of separation of church and state. But that is not the case. The school that threatened to discipline the seventh-grader for calling a Christmas tree by its proper name is a private school not bound by the First Amendment, not a public one. And the War Against Christmas rages in lands with no First Amendment, and even in countries with established churches, such as England.
But the First Amendment (and the “wall of separation” between church and state it supposedly embodies) has certainly proven a valuable weapon for those intent on obliterating any public mention of Christmas. Needless to say, that is not what the First Amendment was intended to do. As Justice Joseph Story, the leading commentator on the Constitution in the first half of the nineteenth century, explained, “The real object of the amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance, Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity, but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.” Indeed, several New England states had established churches well into the nineteenth century.
Often, however, current jurisprudence stands Story’s words on their head, revealing an ill-disguised hostility to Christianity, justified in Orwellian terms. In Skoros v. City of New York, a federal district judge upheld the New York City schools’ policy of displaying Islamic crescents and menorahs, but banning nativity scenes. In upholding this policy, the court lauded the schools’ “diversity policy,” writing that “Without a diversity policy a winter holiday display in New York City’s public schools would be dominated by images representative of Christmas.” Citing Supreme Court precedent, the court concluded that “an explicit Christian religious symbol such as a crèche need not be included in a Christmas time display to counterbalance the display of a menorah before the message is reasonably perceived as one of inclusion.” This is the point: in today’s America, what “diversity” and “inclusion” actually mean is that symbols of America’s Christian heritage must be excluded and expelled. In Orwellian terms: "inclusion" is exclusion. "Diversity" is conformity. And, of course, freedom is slavery.
In amazing contrast is the California district court decision in Eklund v. Byron Union School District, which upheld an eight-week long “study module” for seventh graders that required students to recite Islamic prayers and participate in activities intended to approximate the Five Pillars of Islam, and also encouraged students to create Islamic banners, take Arab names, and wear Arab garb. The court ruled that “Role playing activities which are not in actuality the practice of a religion do not violate the Establishment Clause,” citing Ninth Circuit precedent upholding reading assignments that discussed witches and instructed students to pretend to cast magic spells. One is tempted to resort to Orwell’s Newspeak to explain these decisions: Islam and witches, good; nativity scenes, “ungood.”
Fortunately, other federal court decisions suggest a strategy for a successful counterattack: emphasizing the unmatched cultural significance of Christmas. The Eighth Circuit has recognized, in Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, that “carols have a cultural significance that justifies their being sung in the public schools” and the Fifth Circuit has recognized, in Doe v. Duncanville Independent School District, that “a position of neutrality towards religion must allow choir directors to recognize the fact that most choral music is religious. Limiting the number of times a religious piece of music can be sung is tantamount to censorship and does not send students a message of neutrality.”
I illustrated this point in a talk to the Federalist Society in Cleveland by playing a recording of the German carol “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” from my favorite Christmas CD. Aside from its amazing beauty, there were several notable aspects about this recording. It was sung by children, showing that age is not an insuperable obstacle in introducing students to cultural excellence. This particular carol was recorded in East Germany, showing that even an atheist state, officially hostile to religion, was able to recognize value in Christmas. The carol was sung in German, showing that teaching students about Christmas is an ideal vehicle for teaching them about true multiculturalism. Indeed, my own collection of Christmas music features carols sung in German, French, Italian, Latin, Spanish, Polish, Slovak, Slovenian, Catalan, Welsh, and Ukrainian, in addition to English: no other holiday matches the cultural breadth of Christmas.
Also significant was the fact that the music was composed by one great composer, Michael Praetorius, and that the singers came from the choir of St. Thomas in Leipzig, among whose former choirmasters was Johann Sebastian Bach. This particular CD features Christmas music by both Bach and Praetorius as well as two other towering geniuses, Palestrina and Handel. This Christmas CD is also one of 40 or so I have, each featuring something unique and not found in the others. No other holiday has inspired even a tiny fraction of such great music, and it is absurd that those whose profession is to teach now discipline students who even mention the name of the holiday that inspired this outpouring of beauty. Perhaps the schools should follow this test instead: equal emphasis on all winter holidays that have music written for them by Bach. If our schools can spend eight weeks teaching students about Islam, surely they should be able to teach students about the holiday that has been at the heart of our own civilization for centuries.
Ignoring the great cultural heritage of Christmas that is appreciated by many perhaps most non-Christians, the multiculturalists attempt to justify their assault on Christmas by claiming that the public celebration of Christmas causes non-Christians to feel "left-out." I am skeptical of this claim. But even if the multiculturalists are right, how much should we worry about those who feel left out by the public celebration of Christmas? We cannot forever shield non-Christians from the reality that they are a minority in America, and suppressing the observances of the majority seems a high price to pay to allow overly sensitive souls to live in a comfortable delusion. Of course, children should not be required to participate in school activities of which their parents disapprove, and local control of schools means that districts with large populations of non-Christians will probably have different December activities than districts that reflect the American norm. But a child who does not participate in a Christmas concert is no more excluded than a child whose parents do not allow him to go on a field trip or take a role in a school play. We do not respond to one form of exclusion by banning field trips or plays; we should not respond to the other by banning Christmas.
Nor can the War Against Christmas be justified on educational grounds. If Christian children benefit from learning about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and all the rest, shouldn't non-Christian children benefit even more from learning about the holiday most of their countrymen observe? But, of course, the trend has been to load curricula with references to formerly obscure festivals, while assiduously minimizing and even eliminating references to Christmas.
Another of the favorite arguments of those assailing Christmas is that the Church chose December 25th as the date for Christmas to supplant pagan solstice observances, so Christmas is "really" just a celebration of the winter solstice. This is silly, of course, because the celebration certainly became a celebration of the Birth of Christ, as shown by all the carols it inspired, not to mention the crèches that used to appear all over the West from the time Francis of Assisi erected the first one up until the advent of the ACLU.
But it turns out this argument is factually flawed, too. In the December 2003 issue of Touchstone magazine, historian William Tighe makes a compelling argument that the Church chose December 25 as the date of Christmas because of the ancient Jewish belief that prophets of Israel were conceived on the same date as they died, and Christians in Rome had, by the time of Tertullian, calculated the date of Christ's death as March 25. Hence Christmas on December 25. As Tighe writes:
December 25th as the date of Christ's birth appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences . . . . And the pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians.
The most important thing about the transformation of Christmas to "holiday" is how needless it was, and how it was the product not of "tolerance," but of hatred, resentment, and envy. The transformation was needless because the formerly exuberant American Christmas inflicted real harm on no one, while giving joy to many. Christmas in America was never marked by pogroms or expressions of hatred but by countless acts of charity and kindness.
The transformation of Christmas to "holiday" and the attendant impoverishment of our culture was brought about to accommodate not the small minority of Americans who do not celebrate Christmas but the far smaller minority—comprising those of all faiths and of none—who resent the overwhelming majority who do celebrate Christmas. In my experience, most non-Christians do no resent Christmas and generally enjoy some aspects of its celebration. This sentiment was well expressed by Philadelphia Inquirer editor Jan Eisner's thoughtful and generous essay of December 2002, in which she explained why, as a Jew, she was bothered by the suppression of Christmas and "[t]he conflation of Christmas, Hanukkah, and now Kwanzaa . . . into one big, fat indistinguishable holiday."
However, the transformation of Christmas to “holiday” would not have occurred without a dedicated, active minority who resented and despised it. One example of this phenomenon is a forgettable film from 2003 called “The Hebrew Hammer,” which featured the film’s eponymous hero and his sidekick, the head of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front, battling the film’s villains, the son of Santa Claus and Tiny Tim. Among the villains’ acts of treachery: distributing videos of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” one of the greatest of all American movies and the favorite picture of both Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart. The film was intended to be a comedy, but the reasons for its making were not humorous. As the film’s director, Jonathan Kesselman, told the LA Jewish Journal, “I asked myself, ‘What as a Jew really pisses me off?’ It hit me when I was walking around a mall in December: I hate Christmastime.”
Movies far more mainstream than "The Hebrew Hammer" also show the disdain for Christmas that motivates the multiculturalists. In 2003, Disney also observed Christmas by releasing (through its Miramax subsidiary) another alleged comedy, “Bad Santa.” This movie’s Santa figure is shown being a drunk and having sex, is heard by other characters having anal sex, and repeatedly swears in front of children. According to the Chicago Tribune’s John Kass, Disney promoted this charming film with advertisements on TV featuring “a veiled reference to oral sex and an unmistakable reference to feminine hygiene” at times—such as during Sunday afternoon football games—when it would be reasonable to expect children to watch them. As Kass archly observed, “About the only thing that Santa is forbidden to do these days is mention the real reason that gifts are given in late December.”
The whole point of “Bad Santa” was to mock and demean Christmas. The film’s boosters admitted as much. George Thomas, of the Akron Beacon Journal, wrote that“The trailer shows this as an anti-holiday film and it could be the much needed antidote to that good-will-to-man feeling that permeates the season.” It goes without saying that the great Walt Disney would never have made such a film. But neither would any of the other major studios in Hollywood’s golden age. They were busy instead making such delightful films as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (the film playing in Bedford Falls as George Bailey runs down its snowy streets on Christmas Eve), “The Bishop’s Wife,” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” The journey from “Miracle on 34th Street” to “Bad Santa” is downhill all the way.
Another indicator that the diminishment of Christmas is intentional, not accidental, came in 2007. As the Daily Mail reported on November 1, 2007, a Labour think tank had urged that Christmas be “downgraded” as part of an “urgent and upfront campaign” to promote a “multicultural understanding of Britishness.” Part of this campaign was the elevation of non-Christian holidays with temporal proximity to Christmas.
And just last year, Stephen Bloom, a journalism professor at the University of Iowa, wrote an essay for The Atlantic providing another clear example of the malice behind the War against Christmas. Bloom, a longtime professor of journalism at the University of Iowa, objected to Iowa’s importance in the process of selecting the president, because Iowa is too white (“Rural America has always been homogenous, as white as the milk the millions of Holstein cows here produce”) and too Christian (“Religion is the glue that binds everyone, whether they’re Catholic, Lutheran, or Presbyterian. You can’t drive far without seeing a sign for JESUS or ABORTION IS LEGALIZED MURDER”) to suit Bloom. The ingratitude in Bloom’s vicious portrayal of Iowa is striking, since Iowa’s taxpayers have been paying Bloom’s salary for many years.
One of the other things Bloom dislikes about Iowa is Christmas. He expressed disdain for “Christmas crèches with live donkeys, sheep and a neighborhood infant playing Baby Jesus.” And Bloom matched his disdain for Christmas and other Christian holidays with action, and here Bloom is worth quoting at length: “When my family and I first moved to Iowa, our first Easter morning the second-largest newspaper in the state (the Cedar Rapids Gazette) broke all the rules I was trying to teach my young journalism students in its coverage of an event that was neither breaking nor corroborated by two independent sources. An archived edition of the paper shows it with a verse from Matthew 28:5-6 above-the-fold on Page One, along with an illustration of three crosses. The front-page verse -- which in its entirety read, "And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said." -- took up two columns and was played against a story about the murders of six people in the Iowa town of Norwalk.”
“After years and years of in-your-face religion, I decided to give what has become an annual lecture, in which I urge my students not to bid strangers "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Easter," "Have you gotten all your Christmas shopping done?" or "Are you going to the Easter egg hunt?" Such well-wishes are not appropriate for everyone, I tell my charges gently. A cheery "Happy holidays!" will suffice. Small potatoes, I know, but did everyone have to proclaim their Christianity so loud and clear?”
This is the War on Christmas in a nutshell: a massive effort to transform America so that malcontents like Stephen Bloom won’t feel quite so alienated living here.
Jonathan Kesselman, Labour Party think tanks, and Stephen Bloom have the same right to “hate Christmastime” as the rest of us do to love it. But it makes no sense to transform our culture and jettison beloved and popular traditions to appease such hatred. The malcontents and misfits who have litigated and complained to prevent such horrors as children learning how to sing “Silent Night” should not be allowed to set our course. What is needed, instead, is true tolerance, a recognition that the point of celebrating a holiday is just that—celebration—and the intent of those doing the celebrating is not to demean those who don’t. As Jane Eisner wrote, “Somehow we have to learn to coexist without calling in lawyers and initiating merger talks. We have to recognize the strength and distinction of each celebration, and not force equality by pretending ‘I Had a Little Dreidel’ is on par with the heavenly melodies of Christmas carols.”
I was finally motivated to write about this after driving to my parents’ in Michigan in 2000 to celebrate Christmas. Even though I was driving on December 23, I could not find Christmas music on any American radio station. Then I came across CBC 2, which was carrying nothing but Christmas music and whose announcers were regularly wishing their listeners a Merry Christmas. Their programming featured both familiar Christmas music and some gems in the seemingly inexhaustible treasury of beautiful Christmas music I had not heard before: Anne Sofie von Otter singing lovely Swedish carols, Charpentier’s beautiful Mass for Midnight, with its generous borrowing from French carols, and Praetorius’ stunning Mass for Christmas Morning. The sheer beauty of the music brought home what we are in danger of losing. And the fact that the proudly tolerant Canadians were playing such music led me to wonder why we are, instead, sanitizing our culture of any reference to Christmas.
Rather than strip the altars, we used to try to add to all the beauty surrounding Christmas, the work done earlier by Giotto, Bach, and Dickens, Charpentier and Praetorius, the village priest and organist who collaborated to give us “Silent Night,” and all the rest. Although not quite on this level, the Christmas films made in Hollywood’s golden age have stood the test of time, and are still being watched and enjoyed over 60 years after they were made. More recently, carols such as “The Little Drummer Boy” and cartoons such as “A Charlie Brown Christmas” have enchanted us, and they still do, over 40 years later. We no longer make such contributions, since the focus of the Christmas season is no longer the positive one of celebrating a shared tradition but the negative one of pretending that tradition does not exist, so as not to offend those who do not share it.
As I wrote back in 2003 for The American Conservative, the end result of the sanitizing of Christmas is now within sight: an undistinguished, uninspiring public celebration, devoid of religious or cultural significance or indeed of beauty, with nothing left but multiculturalist pap and tawdry commercialism.
However, none of this is irreversible. Indeed, things have gotten somewhat better since I wrote my first essay on the War against Christmas for Chronicles in 2001, because Americans have started pushing back against the multiculturalist Grinches. Christmas music, for example, is back on the air in most places. But I am hopeful that we can push back even more. There are several mundane steps that would help in the effort to make Christmas again a time for joyous and beautiful public celebration. We need to let movie studios, retailers, school boards, and politicians know that those of us who love Christmas vastly outnumber the malcontents, and that we do not appreciate what has happened to the public celebration of our holiday. We need, in essence, a new Legion of Decency, an organization that helped ensure both that Hollywood did not make movies assaulting Christmas and that it made movies that celebrated Christmas. Boycotting bad movies works. Recently, Hollywood celebrated Christmas by releasing The Golden Compass, a movie based on Philip Pullman’s atheist children’s trilogy. Once word got out about who Pullman was and what he believed, the movie tanked at the U.S. box office, and it is now unlikely that the two planned sequels will ever be made.
Numbers are surely on our side. Polls show that up to 96 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas. This effort need not be entirely negative—even though some polite, forceful complaining will be necessary. We can start wishing others “Merry Christmas” again. We can buy only cards that mention Christmas and let both the retailer and the card maker know why we are doing that. On our Christmas cards that actually mention Christmas we can make a point of using only the USPS’s Christmas stamp, and we can tell them why we prefer that stamp to the generic “Season’s Greetings” alternative. (Indeed, only a popular outcry saved the Christmas stamp from the p.c. chopping block in the mid-1990’s.) We can patronize retailers who actually mention the holiday that is the source of their good fortune and tell them why we prefer to shop there. Just this week, I complimented a restaurant I regularly visit for displaying a Nativity scene. We can make a point of attending worthwhile Christmas concerts and programs put on by local choirs and orchestras. And we can also share essays on the War Against Christmas with our friends and relatives: People are much more likely to act when they realize they are not alone, and others have expressed sentiments they share but have been reluctant to voice.
At a deeper level, we need to cultivate the traditions that make Christmas special in our own homes, churches, and communities. From an early age, I learned from what I saw and experienced that the gifts brought by Santa were only a tiny part of the reason why Christmas was special. It was when our home looked special, when we brought out ornaments we had cherished for years, and some my Dad had kept from his childhood, to put on our tree; when we ate the same dinner on Christmas Eve that our family had eaten for centuries; and when we listened to some of the exquisite music inspired by Christmas, including the beautiful Polish carols I have loved my whole life and the music my uncle and my cousin’s wife played for us on the cello and violin at our Christmas Eve dinner. Such things did not happen anytime else during the year, and they helped instill in me a lasting love for Christmas and a desire to learn about and experience more facets of the celebration of Christmas.
Indeed, whenever I think of the beauty of Christmas and what that beauty points to, I think of my father’s late brother, who used to play the cello for us on Christmas Eve. A fan of Dickens, he used to quote from memory long portions of A Christmas Carol. He introduced me to the great English choirs and their performances of Christmas carols, and made wonderful Christmas decorations for my grandparents’ house, including large golden angels and elaborate paper ornaments for the tree. My uncle did not go to church for most of his adult life, but he never lost his love for Christmas, and that love helped preserve a tie to the Church that helped my uncle return to Her before the end. Christmas has been an occasion of grace for many, and mostly scandalizes those looking for a reason to be scandalized.
In cultivating the traditions of Christmas, we are also being nourished by some of the deepest wellsprings of Western civilization. Over the course of centuries, the celebration of Christmas became splendid and multifaceted, a testament to the genius of our civilization and a holiday that, because of its cultural significance, can be and is enjoyed even by those who do not believe in Christ. As Paula Simons, a non-Christian, wrote in the Edmonton Journal in 2003,
Traditional Christmas carols are beautiful songs. They combine rich, lyric poetry with melodies of timeless power. A child who grows up hearing and singing the likes of God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen or Silent Night . . . or the other great world classics gets a profound musical education. The intricate harmonies and modalities of real carols don’t just move our hearts. They train our ears to appreciate more sophisticated musical forms and our voices to sing in concert with others.
She is exactly right. And Simons’ comments point to yet another way the War Against Christmas can be won.
Christmas is, of course, a celebration of the birth of Christ and the mystery of the Incarnation. But it is also the celebration that most helped shape the West. As Thomas Cahill explains in his wonderful Mysteries of the Middle Ages,
Roman Christians found their attention drawn to the most down-to-earth aspect of the Trinitarian doctrine: the Infleshing, the Incarnation, the Making of the God-Man. What, they asked themselves, are the practical consequences—to human beings—of the Word becoming Flesh? From this question will flow, with some notable divagations, the main course of what was to become Western Christianity.
Although Roman Christians “agreed in principle” with their Greek coreligionists that Easter was the “supreme Christian feast,” “in practice they came to prefer Christmas.” And this preference for Christmas had profound consequences.
Cahill tells the charming story of how Saint Francis of Assisi created the first crèche at Midnight Mass in Greccio. In the words of Saint Bonaventure, Francis “made ready a manger, and bade hay, together with an ox and an ass, be brought unto the place.” Cahill particularly focuses on why the saint did this: “I wish to make a memorial of that child who was born in Bethlehem and, as far as possible, behold with bodily eyes the hardships of his infant state, lying on hay in a manger with the ox and the ass standing by.” By trying to recreate “as far as possible” what had happened in Bethlehem, Francis had, according to Cahill, asked a “wholly new question,” a question that was “historical, emotional, particular, and human: what would it have been like to be there?” This emphasis on realism, so different from the Christian iconography that characterized Eastern religious art, meant that “In the town of Greccio on Christmas night in 1223 were born the arts as we still know them."
A generation later, Giotto, “throughout his adult life a Franciscan tertiary,” painted that scene in Greccio in fresco in the magnificent basilica built to commemorate Francis in Assisi, and the first Christmas is part of his equally famous frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Giotto’s “[E]ucharistic Catholicism, informed by a Franciscan spirit, pushed him toward a nearly scientific quest to reproduce more exactingly in art the very things his eyes could see, his hands could touch, his heart could love—and preeminently among these lovable things was the human body itself.”
And this realism, grounded in the incarnational theology of the Western Church, had a profound impact: “[Giotto’s] work is done. His influence on generations to come, whether direct or indirect, on sculptors as well as painters, on Renaissance and modern artists as well as late-medieval ones—on Pisano, Ghiberti, Donatello, the Della Robbias, Fra Angelico, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, and Mantegna, on the inevitable trio of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael, and perhaps especially on that most inspired supernaturalist Caravaggio—will be immeasurable. . . . And that is how life became art.” Thus, it is no exaggeration to state that the Western artistic tradition is inextricably linked to the celebration of Christmas.
We should never tire of emphasizing this, and of reminding those who wish to “downgrade” Christmas of all they are denigrating. The indisputable cultural significance of Christmas should sweep aside any fair-minded objections to its public celebration and reveal those who still object to be motivated by a hatred of Christmas or of Christianity or of the West, as indeed many of those waging the War Against Christmas are. If the War Against Christmas is to be won, it will be by remembering who we are and how we got here, and by summoning the courage to defend the great legacy bequeathed us by those who went before.