“Happy Holidays” has transformed the seasonal greeting of “Merry Christmas” into a defiant statement of Christian identity. The oft accompanying warning to “Keep Christ in Christmas!” only further chills the warmth of what should be a simple expression of seasonal joy. That Christ is increasingly hard to find in the celebration of Christmas in America should be abundantly clear to any American who has lived through the last two months of the secular Christmas season—which ends right as the Catholic Christmas season begins.
Some Americans no doubt see the de-Christianization of Christmas as progress, simply an effort to repurpose a traditional Christian holiday for an increasingly un-Christian America. Catholics in America remain free to celebrate Christmas as traditionally as they wish, so long as they do so in private and do not impose their traditions on others. Despite the increasing privatization of its Christian dimension, Christmas remains a public holiday with a distinct, alternative story to tell. In this essay, I wish to explore some of the historical roots of this de-Christianization and consider the nature of the story that has supplanted the story of the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Faithful Catholics might assume that de-Christianization began with the secularization of American culture in the 1960s. They would be wrong. The “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaigns so prominent among Christians today go back at least as far as the years immediately following the end of World War II. In his book, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays, historian Leigh Eric Schmidt notes how in 1949, a Catholic organization, the Archconfraternity of Christian Mothers, first launched a poster and billboard campaign in Milwaukee to “Put Christ Back into Christmas.”
The sentiment clearly touched some nerve in the broader public, for it soon spread beyond the Catholic enclaves of Milwaukee to other Christian groups and civic organizations throughout the country. In towns and cities across America, these groups joined together to erect public Nativity scenes and sponsor “Christ in Christmas” parades. The campaign was by all accounts of the time a great success.
The “Put Christ Back into Christmas” campaign of the 1950s suggests at least two historical interpretations. At one level, it seems to reflect the historical reality of a still vibrant public Christian culture. Historians agree that the 1950s saw a tremendous increase in public expressions of religious sentiment in everything ranging from Sunday church attendance to the box office success of biblical epics such as The Ten Commandments to the addition of the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. At another level, it suggests alarm at a growing turn away from Christ within a culture that still saw itself in some sense as basically Christian.
According to Schmidt, concerned Christians located the problem not in secularism per se, but rather in “the commercialization of Christmas.” Schmidt argues that the religious protest against commercialization began in the nineteenth century and had become standard seasonal fare by the 1930s. In 1938, a Protestant minister lamented: “At Christmas time when spiritual values should be upper-most in the minds of people, the land is inundated by a tidal wave of commercial activity and materialistic self-seeking that quite obliterates the quiet, peaceful, spiritual meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ.”
If the Great Depression could not suppress the threat commercialism posed to Christ, no wonder that the great economic boom of the postwar years only exacerbated the fears of religious leaders. Still, no amount of religious indignation could stem the tide of commercialism. Speaking from my experience of growing up in a devoutly Catholic home toward the tail end of the Baby Boom, I can say sadly that Jesus finished a distant second to toys in my Christmas imagination. Yes, we had an Advent wreath, a manger scene and went to Mass on Christmas Day (later in my childhood, the Vigil, with my mom playing in the folk group), but my central devotional act of the Christmas season lay in endlessly pouring over the pages of the Sears Christmas Catalog.
Curiously, commercialism remains a somewhat elusive target for righteous indignation. The secularism that developed during the 1960s easily conjures up the image of village atheists objecting to creche scenes in front of town halls. (My small town in western Virginia continues to display a creche but also allows secular humanists to post a seasonal manifesto of their principles of goodwill in front of the courthouse). Popular Christmas stories do contain powerful embodiments of the evils of the commercial impulse, but figures such as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol or Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life are misers, not merchants pushing consumerism.
Schmidt offers at least one possible explanation for merchants’ success at evading responsibility for driving Christ out of Christmas: they have often been very visible supporters of campaigns to Keep Christ in Christmas. He notes that the original 1949 campaign initiated by the Archconfraternity of Christian Mothers garnered support from roughly two hundred Milwaukee merchants.
Schmidt’s account of a 1951 campaign in Evanston, Illinois stands as a model of religious, civic and commercial cooperation in a campaign ostensibly against commercialism:
Over the summer a coalition of local priests, ministers, lay people, educators, and civic leaders had come together to form the Christian Family Christmas Committee. Included among the lay people were some ‘professional advertising men, copywriters and art directors, who loaned their skills unstintingly,’ and it was in ‘the city’s commercial life’ that the campaign achieved its ‘most astounding success.’ Window cards of the Nativity, drawn up and distributed by the committee, were prominently displayed in Evanston’s shops, and merchants agreed to use the slogan “Put Christ Back into Christmas” in their advertising. Marshall Field’s set up ‘a most artistic Nativity design’ in one of its large windows, and other department stores in the town devised similarly towering displays of the Holy Family and the Three Wise Men. Banks, restaurants, hospitals, and public parks were also adorned with ‘Christmas cribs.’
Schmidt offers this account as an example of how the attempt to defend the religious meaning of Christmas has more often than not occurred “within, rather than apart from, the modern consumer culture.”
Call it commercial anti-commercialism or anti-commercial commercialism, this ethos continues to animate much of the popular culture surrounding Christmas. At its most vulgar, it sells consumerism as a vehicle for family togetherness. In one particularly insidious version of this, a commercial for an internet provider tells the following story: pouty teenage girl resents having to go to her grandparents’ house for Christmas because they lack the technology to support her phone and social media habits; cut to grandparents, busily setting up a huge flatscreen TV and installing state of the art high-speed internet and WiFi; end with the whole family on the couch watching It’s a Wonderful Life, with a no longer pouty teen age girl texting “Best Christmas Ever.”
At its least vulgar, and most seductive, anti-commercial commercialism sells family togetherness apart from consumerism. For the best example of this, we need look no further than the film in the commercial, It’s a Wonderful Life. To be clear: I love this movie. I wish I could be George Bailey. He really does have a wonderful life. He achieves this wonderful life by rejecting all the things that America holds up as desirable: travel, adventure, financial success. What he gains is not only a loving family, but more broadly a loving community. George protects the community from the greed of the old miser Potter and the community rescues him from Potter’s clutches after Uncle Billy’s loss of George’s bank deposits. It’s a Wonderful Life is indeed a wonderful movie.
I must confess that the film has, in recent years, become increasingly a guilty pleasure. At one level, the content of the story escapes the irony of anti-commercial commercialism identified by Schmidt. Potter experiences no Scrooge-like conversion to redeem his pursuit of wealth. George’s successful friend Sam Wainwright does wire him money to cover the loss of the bank deposits, but only after the lower class, non-successful people of Bedford Falls had pooled their meager individual resources to raise enough money to save George. All of this is beautiful and can still bring a tear to my eye.
Still, this is a film that merits the call to “Put Christ Back into Christmas.” Yes, we have the comical Clarence as a guardian angel, but this is of a piece with the kind of sentimental supernaturalism Victorian culture enshrined to ease its transition away from Christianity. Though an otherworldly being, Clarence finds his purpose not in leading George to God, but in helping him realize what a wonderful life he has in this world. To paraphrase Hazel Motes from Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, the message of It’s a Wonderful Life seems to be: “No man with a family and community needs to be justified.” George’s wonderful life embodies every imaginable natural good, yet still lacks Christ.
To be clear, I do not think that every Christmas story or every Christmas activity needs to be edifying or to teach us directly about Christ. Traditional folk Catholic cultures contained many practices of dubious connection to the mystery of the Nativity. The medieval Second Shepherd’s Play is much closer to slapstick comedy than anything in the Bible, but it functioned in a culture that knew the distinction between low festivities and high liturgies. The less-than-pious may have preferred the former to the latter, but their preferences were private vices, not public virtues. When festivities threatened to overpower liturgies, the Church had the public authority to restore proper order.
Modern culture does not recognize a proper order so much as it engages in a constant process of reordering, with the state and the market as arbiters of what counts as proper at any given moment. For all this flux and fluidity, some ideals have proven resilient, perhaps none more so than “the family.” Communist modernity once threatened to abolish the family; victorious in the Cold War, liberal democratic modernity chose instead to extend the family ideal to homosexuals. Though incompatible with traditional Catholic understandings of the family, “gay marriage” is actually in continuity with a more proximate family “tradition,” the Victorian ideal of companionate marriage and a family life focused on the sharing of feelings.
This ideal continuous to animate the “feel good” holiday movies that reflect the contemporary understanding of the “true meaning of Christmas.” Perhaps the greatest force for keeping Christ out of Christmas in our time is the continued power of the Victorian impulse to see in “family values” a substitute for the Holy Family.
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