The roots of de-Christianization and the commercialization of Christmas

Faithful Catholics might assume that de-Christianization began with the secularization of American culture in the 1960s. They would be wrong.

(Image: Ron Dauphin/Unsplash.com)

“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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About Dr. Christopher Shannon 15 Articles
Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996), Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010), and with Christopher O. Blum, The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History (Christendom Press, 2014). His book American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey through Catholic Life in a New World will be published in 2022 by Ignatius Press.

8 Comments

  1. Is there a reasonable distinction between what “According to Schmidt, concerned Christians located the problem not in secularism per se, but rather in the commercialization of Christmas” ? Per se or not per se whether abandonment of faith for the schilling distinguishes reprobate from the faithful is the question.

  2. Commercialization? Check the back of some Christmas cards. The fine print sometimes reads: “printed on sustainably sourced paper,” together with “made in China.”

    Way back in New World colonial days the Romish myth of the Virgin, and the Puritan hatred for Creation itself, led to the forbidding the celebration of Christ’s Mass and of His Day. This from the General Court of Massachusetts:

    “For preventing disorders arising in several places within the jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivities as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense to others, therefore that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting or any other way upon any such account aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every offense five shillings as a fine to the county” (quoted in “Christmas in Christendom,” Citizen of Rome, 1980).

    From such small beginnings, today’s melded Commercialization, Ecologization, and Sinicization of Christmas.

  3. The reference to 1949 reminded me of this article:

    Did Fulton Sheen Prophesy About These Times?

    The article begins:

    In a talk 72 years ago, Bishop Fulton Sheen appeared as visionary as prophets of old.

    “We are at the end of Christendom.” Archbishop Fulton Sheen said during a talk in 1947. Making clear he didn’t mean Christianity or the Church, he said, “Christendom is economic, political, social life as inspired by Christian principles. That is ending — we’ve seen it die. Look at the symptoms: the breakup of the family, divorce, abortion, immorality, general dishonesty.”

  4. Every society has a “priestly” class that the people look to in order to learn the answers to the fundamental questions about human existence: Where did we come from? What is our destiny? How then should we live?

    Western civilization once found the answers to those questions in the Catholic Church. The authority of Christianity to inform the people regarding their “creation story,” their “destiny story,” and the resultant “meaning of life story” was undermined by the splintering of Christianity into feuding factions. This created a vacuum that was filled by blatantly atheistic scientism which now dominates the institutions of society. This explains the commercialization of Christmas and much more.

    The presiding atheistic “priestly” class, through the educational institutions they now dominate, provide the answers to the fundamental questions. They love to present themselves as sophisticated, truly enlightened, and far above the religious fray as they instruct the people regarding all the crimes of those feuding Christians and their endless wars with each other and with other misguided theists, and all the harm they have done to humanity. This is the “root of de-Christianization.”

    They typically don’t mention to their students that a cursory review of modern history reveals that “enlightened,” religion-free, atheistic regimes have murdered so many millions of innocent people that all the combined sins of Christians over 2,000 years are made to look like a petty misdemeanor in comparison.

    They also don’t mention that the discoveries of modern science have rendered atheism utterly irrational:

    We now know that the Universe did indeed have a beginning. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth.”

    We now know that the digital information-driven functional complexity of even a single living cell is such that it would be far easier to explain how an automated factory run by programmed robotic equipment might have come about mindlessly and accidentally than it is to explain how the first biological cell came about that way, which is to say it didn’t. A human body is comprised of the astonishingly precise integration of trillions of such cells. “For you formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works.”

    In God’s perfect Providence the atheistic priestly class has been mightily rebuked by the discoveries of modern science, as well as by their fruits, the examination of which is how Christ taught us to judge them. The fruit of contemporary atheism is an unmitigated, murderous disaster.

    Now if only the bishops would boldly rebuke them instead of attempting to win their approval, and boldly teach the flock the truth, Christendom would be restored, along with the genuinely spiritual celebration of Christmas. And Christ the King would once again be recognized as the only One with the authority and the wisdom to teach the people where they came from, where they are going, and the meaning of life.

  5. I recall William Buckley’s book, “God and Man and Yale,” which decried the abandonment of Christianity at Yale. The same could be said for Harvard, which began as a Protestant seminary, and for other schools. I do not see commercialism there, in the institutions which have the power to define culture. Atheists and anti-Christians succeeded in taking over major institutions and aggressively worked against Christianity. This trend has grown in succeeding years. Current policies of the Democrats deliberately make it work, inviting and subsidizing the mass, illegal immigration from Third World countries which have histories of anti-Christianity and specifically anti-Catholicism.

  6. This year in particular I noticed the faces of shoppers, their baskets filled to overflowing with food and gifts. There was no joy, no anticipation. The faces were blank and solemn. Yes this is Covid weariness in part, but there is something more. If you mention Midnight Mass or a Service of any kind, they don’t know what you’re talking about. And stores have for the most part banished any prominent images of the Christ Child or a Creche. Walmart has banned the Salvation Army for years now. Here in the midwest you used to see Nativity scenes in front of City Halls. No more.

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