Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The “war on Christmas” meme popular this time of year hasn’t been as intense as usual. Of course, there are still a few examples such as a Santa Hat embedded in Microsoft open source coding, which a developer discovered and demanded be removed, comparing it to a swastika. Microsoft, of course, apologized and removed the offensive image, though it tweaked the complainer by substituting a snowflake. There was also Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer being called a racist, but there weren’t many other instances of goofy complaints about Christian symbols like creches in public spaces, school pageants, and “Merry Christmas” greetings.
That’s because the “war on Christmas,” another front in Western Civilization’s bigger war against faith that has been going on for nearly two centuries in the West, has been pretty much lost.
We could mark secularism’s most visible first historical manifestation in the excesses of the French Revolution, when sacred spaces were vandalized, priests and nuns were tied together and thrown into lakes and rivers in “republican marriage,” dating history by the birth of Christ was abandoned, and Notre Dame cathedral was renamed the Temple of Reason. Slowly over the 19th century God and Christ were relentlessly removed from public spaces and culture in Western Europe and the U.S. in the steady advance of secularism. Today, religion is “shut up,” as Benedict XVI put it, “in the subjective sphere of residues from the past.” It is a private taste coexisting with, and no better than, all the other alternatives in the cultural bazaar.
In terms of Christmas, this process had begun long before our current “woke” cultural gestapo put Christmas in its sights. Christmas in its secular existence as a public holiday was already half-way more secular than religious in the 19th century. It was pretty much invented by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1846. In Christian theology, the significance of Christmas is the miraculous birth of the incarnated Word, the promised Redeemer who becomes fully human while remaining fully divine, and who experiences our material existence with its pain, suffering, and death in order to secure our soul’s salvation, the historical proof of God’s unconditional spiritual love and grace.
But A Christmas Carol has little of Christ in it. Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his partner Jacob Marley, weighed down by his riches to which he sacrificed his humanity. Then come three pagan-like spirits who each in turn show Scrooge that he has dehumanized himself by closing his heart to love and sympathy and charity to the less fortunate. The vague “spirituality” of Dickens’ tale serves not so much salvation in the next life, but a sort of social welfare ideal that the selfish rich must soften their hearts and take responsibility for the less fortunate in this life.
Without the acceptance of Christ through baptism, however, why should people care about others? Without God, where do we find the transcendent, universal, non-negotiable imperative to care for others? In Matthew 25:41-45, the Gospel gives us the rationale for charity predicated on salvation through Christ. Speaking of the Last Judgement, Jesus says of the damned,
“Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. 42 For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. 43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’45 “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’
The sentiment in Dickens is the same, except the role of Christ in effecting this change is missing, replaced by the “spirits” and their supernatural power to show Scrooge the past, present, and future. The result is a shift from Christ’s power to personal emotion and sentiment. Moreover, whereas Jesus puts the responsibility on the individual to personally demonstrate His effect on himself manifested in charitable works, we see in Dickens’ story and some of his novels the inchoate foundations of the entitlement state, in which this responsibility is offloaded onto the government, with all the bad consequences for people’s characters when they get something for nothing or, as Kipling put it, “Each man is paid for living, and no man pays for his sins.”
This diminishment of the theological foundation of Christmas increases as secularism gradually replaced faith as the foundational assumption of modern society. In the Forties, this divorce of charity from Christ suggests a vaguely leftist demonization of wealth and capitalism, while the function of God is to send his angels as “life coaches” to straighten out our lives. In our classic Christmas movies, a vague supernaturalism is linked to this caricature of the rich as heartless and selfish, and responsible for the commercialization of Christmas that violates the “spirit of the season.”
In The Bishop’s Wife, released in 1947, David Niven is an Anglican bishop whose marriage is troubled, mainly because of his obsession with getting a self-centered rich woman to finance a new cathedral. Cary Grant is the angel sent to teach him the costs to his marriage his obsession is exacting, and also soften the rich woman’s heart. In the end, the bishop and his wife are reconciled, and the plutocrat Agnes Hamilton, stirred like Scrooge by a reminder of the lost love of her life, abandons the cathedral project and devotes her fortune to helping the poor.
In the same year, Miracle on 34th Street takes a different tact. A retiree who calls himself Kris Kringle claims to be Santa Clause, and is so convincing that Macy’s hires him to be their Santa Clause. But instead of prodding children to ask for toys Macy’s stocks, he instead directs parents to stores where the same product is cheaper. The fiscal success of this tact convinces the owners of other department stores like Gimbels to do the same thing, leading the famous rivals to drop their rivalry, thus honoring the “spirit of the season” that has been besmirched by their bottom-line commercialization. Along the way, the Macy’s exec Doris Walker, a bitter cynic who is teaching her child not to believe in Christmas, is transformed, finding true love along the way.
Finally, from 1946 comes It’s a Wonderful Life, the premier Christmas movie. Again the villain is the rich, Scrooge-like Mr. Potter, who owns most of Bedford Falls, pitted against George Bailey, who inherits a savings-and-loan from his father, and runs it not for profit but to provide homes for those who otherwise would have to rent shabby lodgings from the ruthless Mr. Potter. But Bailey, beset by problems at the bank and his frustrated ambitions for adventure, contemplates suicide, and is rescued by an angel. Again using the supernatural, the angel shows George that his life has been a rich one because of all the people it has touched with his kindness, love, and empathy.
What we notice in all three movies is again the replacement of Christian theology with a fuzzy “spiritualism” in service to personal sentiment and a sort of “social justice” ethos pitted against the greedy, heartless rich. Christ is left out, salvation comes in this world, angels are just really good shrinks, and the need for wealth to be redistributed by the state is validated by appropriating Christ’s authority.
Of course, the sentiments these movies champion are noble and good. But it’s ironic that the holiday celebrating the birth of Christ and Christianity, the transcendent reason why we should care for our fellows and their misfortunes in the first place, is pushed aside and replaced with a thin spirituality embodied in the theologically dubious notion of angels as fixers.
Today, after several decades of banishing Christianity from the public square, Christmas is pretty much secularized, and Christ is less important than Santa Claus. Obviously, millions of people still celebrate Christmas as a religious event. My point is that, as Benedict said, it’s now relegated to the realm of the private.
But in the public square, it’s about consumerism, consumption, entertainment, and time off from work and school. That’s the “spirit of the season” these days. Perhaps we’re not seeing more attacks on Christmas because its secularist enemies have finally won.
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