Why the ‘Post-Christian World’ Clings to Christmas
by Edwin Faust
January 5, 2013
Liturgically it is still Christmas, but in the commercial calendar the great feast day of consumerism has expired and the merchandisers and marketers are gearing up for the less lucrative but still significant generator of sales: Valentine’s Day. Mammon has a heart, but it is filled with overpriced chocolate.
We are living in a time of what might be called parallel liturgies: one religious, one secular, with the latter vying to replace the former. This attempted usurpation has prompted religious media to chronicle each year what has been called “the war against Christmas”. Bloggers duly report the lawsuits against Nativity Scenes in public places and chastise retailers who replace “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” in their store displays and advertisements.
A billboard in New York’s Times Square this past December featured two faces: Santa Claus and Christ, with the former on top, and the corresponding captions, “Keep the Merry … Dump the Myth”. The design and wording were clever and concise, and the outrage by Christian critics muted and largely ignored. It was clever to suggest in so few words that Christ is the myth and Santa Claus, or what his figure represents, is real. But this cleverness also reveals a shallow, if not wholly absent, appreciation of precisely what it is that constitutes “the Merry”.
There has never been, nor will there ever be, a purely secular holiday. Even a superficial knowledge of history makes it plain that every culture that has ever existed has set aside as holy certain days or times of the year. A day becomes holy when we dedicate it to remembering and celebrating the Divine gift of life. And it is the recognition of the gratuitous nature of life that informs the rituals of the feast, with all its extravagances; its abandonment, for a time, of the strictly pragmatic; and its lavish, seemingly wasteful expenditure of time and money to celebrate the sheer wonder and joy of simply being.
In a moment of candor, which remained conspicuously unexplored by further inquiry, the late militant atheist Christopher Hitchens risked tarnishing his halo as a saint of secularism by admitting that were it in his power to abolish religion once and for all, he would not do it. Why? Religion supposedly poisons everything and is the root of all evil. Why keep it? But Hitchens was not pressed to explain. It was as though he had been guilty of an embarrassing lapse in manners from which his admirers tactfully turned their heads away.
I think the answer may lie in the reason the designers of the Times Square billboard want to “Keep the Merry”. Why keep any remnant of what one regards as a pernicious superstition? Because we need holy days. Because no matter how debased commercial culture becomes, it can never eradicate entirely the sense of gratitude for the gift of life that every man carries in his heart and that demands — absolutely demands — occasional expression in some sacred form.
Profiteers can exploit the need for sacred celebration, but they can never replace it. The atheists can hold their Reason Rallies, but they cannot generate from them the joy that makes a true holy day. So those alarmed by the war on Christmas should take heart. The battle may continue, but its outcome is already certain.
Reason can tell us many amazing facts about the physical and psychological orders, but there is that in us that goes beyond reason, that watches reason, if you will, as its witness and its guide. And it is this aspect of man that struggles to articulate itself and, finding words inadequate, bursts forth in symbol and ritual that try to capture for a day, for a few moments even, that pure joy that lives in the intersection between time and eternity, between the human and Divine.
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