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Christmas Divided
photo: Stuart Pilbrow

It’s become customary this time of year to hear concerns expressed about the loss of Christmas spirit. Sometimes these fears are more about one’s cultural identity — and the sense that one’s group is losing power and influence — than they are about the actual meaning of Christmas. At other times, one hears something that sounds less reactionary and more like a thoughtful: Have our Christmas rituals lost some of their meaning? Have they become old and tired or do they pale in comparison to more novel inventions?

Questions like these may be prompted by our experience or by polls like this one by the folks at Gallop, “Christmas Strongly Religious for Half in U.S. Who Celebrate It.” These headlines, like all headlines, tend to be written provocatively, which appeals to the culture warrior in all of us as well as the thoughtful social critic who resides deeper in our hearts. The story seems to be one of a divided culture in which one half of us sees a profound meaning in Christmas and the other half is engaged in one long shopping frenzy. The reality is very different and as luck, fate, or grace would have, a good bit more comforting.

Our culture, despite its doses of divisiveness and superficiality, continues to bear meaning. Oftentimes this is explicitly and traditionally religious. The Gallop poll, for example, indicates that “a majority of Americans [incorporate] specific religious activities or symbols into their holiday celebrations. This includes 62 percent who attend religious services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, 65 percent who display decorations with a religious meaning, and 78 percent who take time to reflect on the birth of Christ.”

This is a good story, but it is not the entire story. Inspiration and meaning are not confined to our traditional Christian rituals. Meaning is born by an amazing array of rituals and novel experiences, some of which may strike us as superficial or simply non-religious. The Gallop poll, for example, defines gift-giving as “secular,” as if the giving and receiving of gifts isn’t capable of being a religiously significant event.

Modern culture is confusing in this way because so much of life has been removed from the control of the church. These areas may simultaneously be experienced as both secular and sacred, depending on the participants. Gift giving is a nice example, because it allows for different interpretations. I use the word “sacred” here, rather than “religious,” as a way to try to get at a sense of reality that is full of meaning, luminous, and profound, whether it be explicitly religious or not.

This view of reality shouldn’t come as a surprise to those of us who do celebrate Christmas religiously. Indeed, it is in keeping with the spirit of Christmas, that holy day of the hidden, in which a holy mystery is said to be revealed in a newly born baby, born not to a king and queen but to a very ordinary couple, hardly noticed at all, except for some rather ordinary shepherds. Praise be to the new born king and to mystery and meaning, hidden and revealed this Christmas season.


David TrueDavid True lives in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and is Associate Professor of Religion at Wilson College, where he teaches courses in religion and ethics. He co-edits the journal Political Theology and regularly blogs at Tea Leaves.

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3 Comments

My growing Christmas consternation, heightened by delightful marriage to a Jewish wife, continues.

I wish to see something solid and non-sensational that explains the purpose of the different birth stories in Matthew (Jesus as the new Moses) and Luke (Jesus as superseding John the Baptizer), the way Marcus Borg and Jon Dominic Crossan explicate it. That on the one hand.

I wish to see also something solid about the origin of the December 25th celebration, the incorporation of Greek mystery religion notions, and then of Native European traditions -- but not so much in a "tear-it-apart-and-tear-it-down" way as in a literary and ritual creative way. Over the years Christianity develops the two birth stories by conflating them, and it's analogous to how William Shakespeare took old stories and developed them into powerful and memorable plays.

I wish to see also something that separates "Christ" as "Messiah" (and asserts boldly that Jesus does not pass the test for Messiah) from "Christ" as this new "Son of God" etc., comparing him/it to and distinguishing him/it from "Augustus" as the "Son of God" -- all in all the highlighting again of this new religion. John B. Cobb, Jr. goes a long way toward doing this in his little book "Process Answers to Frequently Asked Questions," but my wife found his short discourse way too dense.

I wish to see something that alters the usual statement, "Christianity is a branch of Judaism" to "Christianity is a creative new religion that has lasted two milleniums. It was a twig taken from Judaism and transplanted in Greek mystery soil. It is a creative play on the historical figure who died, but has little to do with his historical self."

I agree, I believe quite a bit of people are focused on the profound part of Christmas, the celebration of Christ, and others just shopping. I believe christmas is a good time to reflect on our lives that Christ has allowed us to have. Merry christmas!

Christmas has been virtually reinvented the last 30 years or so in mass media culture as a totally secular holiday that emphasizes consumption. I think this may be, among other things, an artifact of the ambiguity of a "certain cohort" of the baby boom generation (sorry for the fudging a bit here because I'm not quite sure how to put it and this is a big group) has towards the Holiday and how they might handle it vis a vis their children. So least common denominator becomes gift giving and personal consumption. Christmas cards for example, seem to be disappearing, replaced by Facebook greetings in my experience, but even those are surprisingly few among my middle aged friends now that I think about it.

I know that many are actually weary of the "holiday season" as it's perceived as obligatory and just a weeks-long chore to only satisfy those friends and family with a sense of entitlement.

The "spirit of giving" could use a 'reboot'.