New Sherwood

Christmas, American Style

The American way of celebrating Christmas has long been under attack by secularists. We are now used to what has become known as “the war on Christmas” and hopefully are responding appropriately. I’m fortunate to live in a place where the majority of public officials, merchants, and citizens are unintimidated by secularists and proudly acknowledge Christmas in the public square. I’ve already been wished “Merry Christmas” several times in the past 24 hours by waitresses, store clerks, and anonymous strangers.

What is less known is that the American way of celebrating Christmas is also under attack, for different reasons, by some traditionalists and religious conservatives. Chief among the objections is that Protestant America seems to have no regard for the Catholic liturgical calendar: most Americans begin celebrating Christmas before Advent commences! (One blogger refers to this phenomenon as “the war on Advent”.). The season of Advent is supposed to be moderately penitential, but one is pressured to attend so many parties during this time that the idea of penance is completely lost.

The Twelve Days of Christmas, observed from December 25 (Nativity) to January 6 (Epiphany), are virtually ignored apart from Christmas Day itself. Having celebrated “Christmas” since the day after Thanksgiving, by the time the real Christmas comes along everyone is sick of it. Saint Nicholas has morphed into Santa Claus, thereby eclipsing the real feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6. The post-Christmas feasts of Saint Stephen, Holy Innocents, Circumcision, and others are similarly ignored due to Christmas-fatigue.

Another common complaint, of course, is the crass commercialization of the holiday and the pressure to spend lots of money. This is followed by objections to other American customs – Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, Charles Dickens, Victorian Christmas displays, Christmas films and “carols” of questionable orthodoxy, etc. – to the point where it seems that nothing about American Christmas traditions are pure enough to touch.

How ought a Catholic respond to this?

I have to confess that I love many things about our American-style Christmas. While growing up, my mother always made Christmas seem magical. Christmas, in fact, helped lead me from teenage agnosticism/atheism back to faith in Christ. The sentimental Christmas songs on the radio helped force me to confront the unsentimental claims of historic Christianity. From Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”, from Clement Clarke Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” (the song, not the film), many American traditions of the season are dear to me.

A word about commercialization. Yes, it is totally out of control. Yes, it has obscured the real meaning of Christmas in many ways, and to that extent must be resisted. However, let’s keep one thing in mind: just because something has a commercial origin doesn’t make it “fake” or lacking in cultural significance. Commerce is culture, too. It’s a good thing that merchants honor Christmas, decorate their shops, have pre-Christmas sales and so forth. It’s a good thing that some people can make a living operating Christmas tree farms. It’s a good thing that chambers of commerce all over America organize Christmas events for the benefit of their members. It’s a good thing that, for a few weeks out of the year, a few more Protestant Americans will ask themselves “who is the real Santa Claus?” and thereby become familiar with a great Catholic saint. The problem is not that some people benefit financially from Christmas; the problem is that, for too many, Christmas has become a sacred means to worldly ends.

As Catholics, of course, we have happily made some adjustments. Worship – the Mass in Christmas – is the season’s absolute priority. We try to keep a good Advent. We don’t put up the tree – and we don’t start listening to Christmas music (much to the consternation of our kids who never tire of it) – until Gaudete Sunday or later. We have moved our gift exchange to Epiphany so as to better keep the twelve days of Christmas. We are trying to cut back on gifts for those who have plenty, and to re-emphasize giving to the poor. But we do participate in the larger celebration of the community, insofar as we are able, even if we aren’t quite sure where to draw the line at times. I’m cheered by the ringing of the Salvation Army bells. So long as there is a Salvation Army, I’m glad they do what they do this time of year. We are Americans, too, and fortunately it isn’t difficult to find redeeming qualities in the way Americans celebrate Christmas.

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December 21, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

20 Comments

  1. Jeff, I appreciate your sensible take on this stuff. I’m not Catholic, but I think people need to be wary when they get all riled up over the fact that people celebrate Christmas. A little alarm bell should sound. GKC is positively eloquent about the importance of Christmas and what it gives to a child lifelong.

    I have Protestant friends who are opposed to Christmas for Puritan reasons–they think it’s too Catholic. They are specifically opposed to treating any day as holy. In fact, my blood ran a bit cold when one of the parents, trying to sound not too extreme, said to me, “I mean, we tell our children that Christmas is nice, because we get to spend time with our relatives and enjoy that time together…” Here are these devout Christians giving an explicitly secularist interpretation of the value of Christmas out of fear of admitting that a specific day could be set aside to celebrate a specific event in history and Our Lord’s Incarnation. Talking about the real meaning of Christmas might make it sound like we believe in holy days, and that must be avoided at all costs. Creepy. So Christmas gets attacked from all sides.

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    Comment by Lydia | December 21, 2008

  2. A wise and heartening post, Mr. Culbreath. Well said and Merry Christmas!

    Also, I’m so glad the prayers for the restoration of your health were answered. All praises to our Lord.

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    Comment by Paul J Cella | December 22, 2008

  3. “I have Protestant friends who are opposed to Christmas for Puritan reasons–they think it’s too Catholic.”

    Well, I believe your friends have a point – and of course that’s another thing I love about Christmas. :-)

    “They are specifically opposed to treating any day as holy.”

    Yes, I know the type. No day is more holy than another, no place more holy than another, no person more holy than another, etc., etc.. The Protestant roots of modern egalitarianism.

    “Here are these devout Christians giving an explicitly secularist interpretation of the value of Christmas out of fear of admitting that a specific day could be set aside to celebrate a specific event in history and Our Lord’s Incarnation.”

    I suppose they don’t celebrate their own birthdays? Or the 4th of July?

    “So Christmas gets attacked from all sides.”

    Proof, I suppose, that there is something very right about it.

    Merry Christmas to all the McGrews!

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | December 23, 2008

  4. Mr. Cella, it’s always a pleasure to see you “drop in” here. Thank you for the kind words, and may the Cellas likewise have a blessed Christmas!

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | December 23, 2008

  5. Jeff –

    First, very happy to read of your recovery. We disagree on some things, but I appreciate your point of view and clear prose.

    However, I think perhaps you are going a bit over the top here. A “war” on Christmas? I can understand your concern over the secularization of the holiday; I was raised in the Catholic church and remember midnight masses and my mom leading the choir in Handel’s Messiah. Christmas has been co-opted by commercial interests. But perhaps it’s safe to say it’s just another instance of turnabout being fair play, since the Church co-opted pre-existing mid-winter/solstice festivals to recognize and celebrate Christ’s birth — which few scholars believe actually happened in December.

    But I digress. I’m not offended if someone wishes me “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Or vice versa. Neither is my Jewish husband. Turn on the tv or open the paper and you will see that the predominant message revolves around Christmas and not a more vague “holiday” sentiment. CBS (I think) still airs “It’s A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The holiday music channel on my cable system has yet to play “The Dreidel Song” as far as I know.

    We live in a diverse, but predominantly Christian, society. And I don’t see a problem in keeping religious displays and references out of our civic/political life. As you say, there are plenty of private organizations that can place a creche or menorah on their property — does it NEED to be on the lawn of the city hall?

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    Comment by Mistereks | December 24, 2008

  6. “First, very happy to read of your recovery. We disagree on some things, but I appreciate your point of view and clear prose.”

    Thank you, Mistereks. For someone on the other side of so many topics, you’ve been a remarkably polite and restrained commenter. Much better than I behave on other blogs.

    “However, I think perhaps you are going a bit over the top here. A ‘war’ on Christmas?”

    By “war on Christmas” I mean a conscious, sustained, and semi-coordinated attempt to eliminate public acknowledgment or celebration of the feast. Perhaps the martial language overstates things, but it’s obviously a metaphor, and doubly appropriate due to the underlying spiritual warfare involved.

    “Christmas has been co-opted by commercial interests. But perhaps it’s safe to say it’s just another instance of turnabout being fair play, since the Church co-opted pre-existing mid-winter/solstice festivals to recognize and celebrate Christ’s birth — which few scholars believe actually happened in December.”

    Whether or not it happened in December is really beside the point. The Incarnation is arguably the single most important event in the history of mankind, upon which even our calendar depends. (Easter is a greater liturgical feast for obvious reasons, but it presupposes the Incarnation.)

    And it isn’t a case of “turnabout”. The Church didn’t “co-opt” anything: it sanctified pagan festivals that were mere shadows and forerunners of Christ. When Christmas supplanted ancient pagan celebrations it was a fulfillment; when secularism attempts to banish or dilute Christmas it is an impoverishment.

    “But I digress. I’m not offended if someone wishes me ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’ Or vice versa.”

    “Happy Holidays” actually fits the season well, with so many Catholic holy days being observed in December. I wouldn’t be offended at “Happy Holidays” either if it had not become a secularist tool for avoiding and displacing traditional Christmas greetings. As it stands, everyone who wishes me “Happy Holidays” after Gaudete Sunday gets a “Merry Christmas” in return.

    “Neither is my Jewish husband.”

    Now I’m confused. All this time I thought you were a man. If you are indeed male, please do not refer to another man as your “husband” in my comment boxes. That’s one piece of fiction I’ll not be a party to. But if you are female, sorry about the misunderstanding and kudos to your Jewish husband.

    “Turn on the tv or open the paper and you will see that the predominant message revolves around Christmas and not a more vague ‘holiday’ sentiment. CBS (I think) still airs “It’s A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The holiday music channel on my cable system has yet to play ‘The Dreidel Song’ as far as I know.”

    I’ve been without TV for 13 years, so I’ll have to take your word for it. As for the newspapers, I have noticed some improvement in the last 2 or 3 years. Perhaps things are turning around.

    “We live in a diverse, but predominantly Christian, society. And I don’t see a problem in keeping religious displays and references out of our civic/political life.”

    The injustice of this, of course, is that it keeps the highest values and principles of Christian people out of civic/political life. Men have a duty to uphold the truth in everything. If God is in Heaven, and we are His creatures, and if He has given us moral precepts by which we are to conduct our lives, then we must acknowledge this in every circumstance. Keeping religious displays and references out of public life amounts to forbidding religion as a motive for public action.

    “As you say, there are plenty of private organizations that can place a creche or menorah on their property — does it NEED to be on the lawn of the city hall?”

    If Jesus Christ is, in fact, the third Person of the Holy Trinity, God become Man, then all men and their governments have an obligation to acknowledge this somehow. I take your point about the religious diversity of the United States, which in practice means that some communities will not hold this belief. But at minimum, then, in communities where Christian belief still prevails, public acknowledgment should at least not be prevented.

    Thank you for the comment, and may you and yours have a joyful Christmastide.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | December 24, 2008

  7. Jeff –

    “If God is in Heaven, and we are His creatures, and if He has given us moral precepts by which we are to conduct our lives, then we must acknowledge this in every circumstance. Keeping religious displays and references out of public life amounts to forbidding religion as a motive for public action.”

    This is the key challenge. I believe religion should NOT be a motive for public action, primarily because it raises the problem of whose religion gets the final word. Yet ethics MUST enter into public action, or the concept of “public” ceases to have any meaning. If we can’t have respect for the property or person of our fellow travelers, mankind descends into a sort of Sadean chaos, where the only law is “every man for himself.” This works, but only for the most powerful and ruthless. Though I am not religious in any sense, I do believe it is in all our best interests to love and look out for one another.

    “But at minimum, then, in communities where Christian belief still prevails, public acknowledgment should at least not be prevented.”

    This, I think, is common sense on your part, and where thought in terms of forbidding public displays can reach too far. In the town where I grew up — and, it seems, Orland — Christianity is the religious choice of the vast majority. Recognizing that faith as an important aspect of civic culture seems to me to be generally appropriate. I don’t get too worked up if the town of Orland wants to have a Christmas display. If they sponsor, say, a walnut festival, and some portion of the citizenry is allergic to walnuts, could not some offense be implied? I believe there is a small town in Michigan which has a majority Muslim population. If there town wanted to recognize Ramadan in some way, I think they ought to be able to. In this area (public displays) as with many things, a little tolerance and understanding goes a long way. I remember having a debate online with someone about whether or not public golf courses were a good idea, since so few citizens play the game.

    “All this time I thought you were a man. If you are indeed male, please do not refer to another man as your “husband” in my comment boxes. That’s one piece of fiction I’ll not be a party to.”

    I am a man. [ Editor’s note: I’ve deleted the rest of this paragraph. Will be happy to discuss with you via e-mail if you like, but the topic isn’t debatable here. – Jeff ]

    Thanks for your wishes of Christmas joy — I wish you and your family the same. Peace on Earth. Good will to men.

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    Comment by Mistereks | December 25, 2008

  8. Good for you, Jeff! And Merry Christmas again.

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    Comment by Lydia | December 25, 2008

  9. It’s unfortunate that you have chosen to delete such simple and factually true language. I had thought you had greater intellectual honesty than that.

    Nothing that I wrote was vulgar or offensive. Most of it spoke of a caring, loving relationship — not in terms of physical affection, but in terms of mutual support and family commitments.

    If honest debate isn’t allowed here, I’ll move on. Unfortunate — I had been recommending Stony Creek Digest to other people and had linked to it from my blog. Now I have less trust in the honesty of what I find here.

    Still the best to you and yours.

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    Comment by Mistereks | December 26, 2008

  10. Mistereks:

    Jeff’s blog lends itself well to recommendation because he is honest, thoughtful, and principled; he promotes the truths of the Catholic Faith here, and that Faith finds same-sex marriage incompatible with Catholic doctrine and with religious, moral and natural law. That Jeff chooses not to debate same-sex marriage on his blog is his prerogative. That he is honest about it is abundantly clear to most readers.

    Jeff:

    Merry Christmas to you and your lovely family. Thank you for your honest clarity and contemplative style of writing – it brings me back time and time again.

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    Comment by annabenedetti | December 26, 2008

    • Anna, thank you for your kind words, as always. That’s a lot to live up to and I’m quite sure that I don’t! May you and your family have a blessed Christmas season!

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      Comment by Jeff Culbreath | December 27, 2008

  11. Anna –

    We weren’t debating SSM. [ Remainder of comment deleted. – Jeff ]

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    Comment by Mistereks | December 27, 2008

  12. Mistereks:

    I hope you don’t move on – you are most welcome to comment here – but “honest debate” is definitely not allowed on certain issues. For future reference, the following topics may not be debated either:

    The bright side of the Nazi Holocaust
    Whether the Catholic Church be the Whore of Babylon
    The case for legalized shoplifting
    Why Islam is a religion of peace
    Britney Spears
    Paris Hilton
    How the 1960s liberated America

    Etc. Others will be decided on a case-by-case basis.

    Seriously, public debate on same-sex “marriage” – or whether a particular man does or does not have a husband – is just another means of normalizing the subject, getting people used to the idea. I can see debating the subject in a university setting where most people have emptied their minds of traditional notions of morality, but Stony Creek Digest is not such a place. The fact remains that you, a man, do not have a husband, no matter what the state might say, and further debate about this ontological reality is rather pointless.

    You said that nothing you wrote was vulgar or offensive. The vulgarity and obscenity of same-sex marriage lies beneath surface, I’ll grant you, and these days we are forced to talk about it, rather as an abstraction. But the specific proposition that you, a man with whom I am conversing, are married to another man, is indeed offensive, and forces me to react.

    If we were sitting at coffee and I told you that the square table between us was round, you would certainly contradict me, and I shouldn’t be too surprised. I suppose we could, eventually, “agree to disagree” about the shape of the table for friendship’s sake, and that might be the wisest course. But the nature of marriage is infinitely more important than the shape of a coffee table, and its misrepresentation can hardly go unchallenged.

    Two men presenting themselves to the world as “married” is an aggressive, offensive act. It demands a response. Silence is acquiescence. We can enjoy some discourse if you keep this bit of fiction to yourself, but if you insist on proposing it, then I have to address it. In order to keep this blog a somewhat pleasant place, I would rather just ban the topic and not argue with you. That might be a copout on my part, but if told you that homosexuality is moral and spiritual suicide, leading millions to eternal damnation, and is furthermore a recipe for lifelong misery and dysfunction, responsible not only for millions of deaths and the spread of horrible diseases, but also the indescribable suffering and deaths of innocent women and children, the moral corruption of innocent youth, even bearing some responsibility for hate-crimes and bullying against homosexuals and those perceived as homosexual, you would simply plug your ears and leave. Which, I suspect, you might do anyway, having forced my hand on the subject.

    The topic of same-sex marriage is obviously not proscribed here, only language that promotes or normalizes the idea, such as referring to your male friend as a “husband”, thereby revealing that you attempt to do with him what only husbands and wives may licitly do within marriage, further unveiling the obscenity and inviting an unwholesome curiosity.

    I thank you in advance for your cooperation, Mistereks, and continue to welcome your comments within these parameters. God keep you.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | December 27, 2008

  13. Mr. Culbreath, Merry Christmas to you and your family!

    [ Thank you – and Merry Christmas to you and yours, Mr. Chan! ]

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    Comment by T. Chan | December 27, 2008

  14. It’s your house, and I am nothing if not a good guest. Your house, your rules.

    Now, as far as eternal damnation goes, I’ll grant you that — at least as far as I will accept the concept of damnation. Which isn’t very far. But a “recipe for lifelong misery and dysfunction” sounds more like a description of the closet to me.

    Let me ask you this question — would a system where every couple that seeks the benefits currently granted by civil marriage be required to seek a “civil union” license be acceptable to you? In other words, if the state got out of the “marriage” business entirely — just as they currently issue birth and death certificates, but don’t perform baptisms or funerals.

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    Comment by Mistereks | December 27, 2008

  15. “It’s your house, and I am nothing if not a good guest.”

    I truly appreciate it.

    “Let me ask you this question — would a system where every couple that seeks the benefits currently granted by civil marriage be required to seek a ‘civil union’ license be acceptable to you? In other words, if the state got out of the ‘marriage’ business entirely — just as they currently issue birth and death certificates, but don’t perform baptisms or funerals.”

    I do think the state needs to be in the marriage business. Spouses have duties to each other, to their children, and to their communities, and these require a legal framework. Furthermore marriage should be encouraged and incentivized by the state, since it is a positive social and cultural good, and not merely a private contract between two people.

    Our marriage laws do need reforming. No-fault divorce should be eliminated, and couples whose marriages are sacramental should have the option of entering into a legally indissoluable marriage.

    I am opposed to “civil unions” for both homosexuals and unmarried heterosexuals.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | December 27, 2008

  16. Jeff, I love your list of proscribed topics for debate. Over on Wesley J. Smith’s blog I was asked if I would be interested in “hearing and understanding the experience” (or some such phrase) of a doctor who had killed a born infant under the Groningen Protocol. I consider this bizarre. You know, let’s just all share our experiences of infanticide. I thought of that when I saw your list.

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    Comment by Lydia | December 27, 2008

  17. “Spouses have duties to each other, to their children, and to their communities, and these require a legal framework. Furthermore marriage should be encouraged and incentivized by the state, since it is a positive social and cultural good, and not merely a private contract between two people.”

    I agree. And all of these can apply to same-sex couples, as well. Duties to each other, to children (though significantly less often than heterosexual couples), and a positive social good (we’ll agree in advance to disagree on cultural good).

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    Comment by Mistereks | December 27, 2008

  18. Lydia, you and I are definitely on the same page. Some things should never be up for discussion or debate. Some pictures should never be looked at (or imagined). Some ideas are unworthy of consideration. Some ideas might, perhaps, be legitimately expressed in some contexts but should never be expressed in others. Some thoughts – and this is an unpardonable opinion nowadays – some thoughts should never be thunk (did I just make up a new word?).

    Same-sex “marriage” is something that should never, ever cross anyone’s mind. That the culture has forced this idea upon the minds of children – including my own homeschooled, TV-free kids whose parents must live in the world – is simply outrageous. While Sacred Scripture doesn’t hesitate to describe wars and murders and immorality, there remain some things of which “it is a shame even to speak” (Eph 5:12).

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | December 27, 2008

  19. “And all of these can apply to same-sex couples, as well.”

    Except that it is impossible for same-sex couples ever to be married.

    “Duties to each other …”

    Unmarried people do not have the same duties married people have.

    “to children (though significantly less often than heterosexual couples)”

    Because children have a right to a married mother and father, parents have a duty to give them a married mother and father.

    “and a positive social good (we’ll agree in advance to disagree on cultural good).”

    Homosexual relationships are always sinful and destructive, and therefore these cannot possibly be a social or cultural good. Any good that might be found in such relationships exists in spite of, and not because of, the homosexuality involved.

    There’s no “agreeing to disagree” on this one, Mistereks. Rather, you need to face the reality of what it means to be a man, and frankly to repent of the harm you are doing to yourself, to your “partner”, and to society – not to mention the offense against God. There is enough strength in the life of Jesus Christ – and enough grace in the sacraments of the Church – to overcome whatever trauma may have led to your homosexuality, and to deliver you from the hell you are making for yourself ten thousand times over. Rather than agree to disagree, I pray that you will become the man you were created to be, and soon.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | December 27, 2008


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