In Europe, Christmas markets attract throngs of holiday revelers and sell everything from home-crafted tree ornaments to confections and pastries sold only in December. Most of these markets are held under the spires of great cathedrals and basilicas. In America, however, the Christmas market is the shopping mall, and it is, in contrast, decidedly secular.
For most Americans, there are two Christmas experiences, the first beginning with Black Friday and the second one associated with the local church. Perhaps unwittingly, the constitutional separation of church and state has created a dual Christmas for many in the United States.
The Public Image of Christmas is Secular and Commercial
On Thanksgiving morning, November, tens of thousands lined New York streets to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Specialty musical numbers were performed in front of Macy’s flagship store. The overwhelming majority of songs were seasonal but secular and the star of the parade is always Santa Claus. There is no hint of religion.
Although beautifully decorated Christmas trees can be found in every store and hotel lobby, the message points to holiday purchases. There are no Christmas manager scenes in shopping malls, only expansive sections featuring an enthroned Santa assisted by elves. Children tell Santa what they want for Christmas.
Obscuring the Religious Image of Christmas
Christians frequently decry the secularization of Christmas. In public schools, some districts permit holiday celebrations that feature songs about Santa or having a “White Christmas,” but refrain from any overt mention of the biblical Christmas story. If the Christ-story is mentioned, it must be in terms of historical context, cultural considerations, and balanced with other non-Christian seasonal holidays like Kwanza.
Much of this is for several reasons. Even Christians, for the most part, acknowledge that most Christmas traditions are pagan in origin, although refitted to accommodate religious belief. Additionally, the United States can no longer be termed a “Christian” nation, given the diversity of belief that includes atheism and Islam.
American attitudes toward religion, recently detailed in a Pew survey, demonstrates the decrease in American religious knowledge and practice. Why should Christmas be any different?
Christmas and the Separation of Church and State
The First Amendment Establishment Clause prohibits any governmental agency from promoting religion. In King, North Carolina, for example, an on-going dispute that began in September is focused on the flying of the Christian flag on a veteran’s memorial located in a public park.
It took one phone call from an anonymous veteran who complained to the city council to begin the legal battles and outrage the predominantly Protestant rural community.
Local governments across the nation are much attuned to such legal challenges and this affects any public holiday displays that remotely reference religious symbolism. Christians, however, become just as offended when non-Christian religious symbols are displayed.
What Christians do not realize is that retailers use images like decorated trees to link the commercialism of the holiday to the sensibilities of their customers. Most of the commercial holidays like Valentine’s Day and Easter are linked to Christian holidays once deemed “feast days” in the Middle Ages. Thus, people who want to “keep Christ” in Christmas will still support the commercial Christmas.
Christmas has Become Two Separate Holidays
Christmas television shows, especially for children, have always been secular in theme. The classic specials like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman depart from any religious message. Even Dickens’ Christmas Carol, remade dozens of times, does not deviate from the original message of greed and redemption, but not because Scrooge becomes acquainted with the Christ of Christmas.
The message of the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street has nothing to do with the Christian Christmas, other than promoting the universal notion of selfless giving, something even Muslims practice and hold as one of their core beliefs. The film, nominated as Best Picture, validates Kris Kringle.
Every Christmas day, newspapers across the nation reprint Francis P. Church’s 1897 editorial, “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.” Church wrote: “Not to believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies!”
Christmas is a social and cultural holiday. For two thousand years it has been refined to include the beliefs and practices of changing cultures. In America, the holiday has become commercial. Those that desire to explore the deeper meaning, the essence of the original belief, must turn to their various faith traditions.
This is the dualism of Christmas: the long lines of shoppers at 4 A.M. on Black Friday, and the worshipers on Christmas Eve that hold white candles while singing “Silent Night” as they gaze upon a crèche besides the church altar. In most cases, they are the same people.