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.