Christmas is fast approaching and I am pleased to say my shopping is done and courtesy of several online retailers I have successfully avoided the stores.
Truth be told I get morose around the holidays. Christmas seems to me to be neither a convincing religious holiday nor a pleasurable secular one and the societal “script” feels as if we’re supposed to be happy even if happy is the last thing we feel like being. Between the conservative Christians whining that there’s a war on Christmas and that people are trying to prevent them from enjoying their religious festivities and the relentless drumbeat of corporate America trying to convince the rest of us we should bankrupt ourselves in a quest to buy the perfect present, the season seems more dreary than joyous.
I am the product of consumer culture; in and of itself I am not opposed to purchasing goods and services. What I dislike is the notion that purchasing of goods and services is a meaningful act, the idea that if I buy someone the right present they will know I love them, they will be happy, they will be fulfilled. If someone buys me the right present I will be happier and more fulfilled is a simply laughable. Yet, corporate America pushes the idea that we need to buy just the right present to express our love. I dislike the notion that we’re supposed to quest through stores and malls and spend hours wrapping and then on Christmas morning, our loved one will open the box and their face will light up and they’ll know we love them because we found the right present. Of course we are always let down – no present will make us happier or more fulfilled. It annoys me more than anything. Chances are good, I know better than you want I want and need and you better than me what you want and need so let’s just stop the games. If I want or need something, I will probably go get it for myself (more likely I’ll go online and order it).
Let’s look at the religious side of this nonsensical season. The claim boils down to the notion that there is hostility toward Christmas and that hostility is expressed through people saying things “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” Frankly, I’ve always found this rhetorical nonsense to be, well, absurd in the extreme. If the faith rests on whether or not the tired clerk at the mall says “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” I’d say the faith is no longer worth anyone’s time or energy.
But there is a more troubling dynamic at work. Conservative Christians have been convinced they are besieged minority, their faith under assault from all sides. They experience the standards of behavior in a pluralistic society, in which no faith is granted official sanction and in which all faiths are respected as an assault on their faith. When the clerk at Macy’s says “Happy Holidays” they don’t hear a wish for a good time that doesn’t presume anything about their beliefs, they hear a deliberate insult, a demeaning of their faith system in which “Christmas” is a big deal. The clerk didn’t honor Christmas.
If you already think your faith is besieged on all sides, then it’s much easier to turn every day encounters into something they’re not. The loss of the “Christmas spirit” these folks complain about was an invention of the media with its endless televised tales of people discovering the true meaning of Christmas and the episode ending with the family gathered around the tree opening presents and sharing expressions of love. Sunk into a spirit of relentless consumerism, complaints that we’ve lost the Christmas spirit seem accurate if the Christmas spirit is supposed to be about the trite expressions of love found in the media.
The absurd “War on Christmas” was purely invented and yet it resonated with millions of Americans because they think something is deeply wrong with our culture. Unable to fully grasp what it is, they heard the phrase “war on christmas” and felt it was an expression of their dis-ease and discomfort. Latching onto the notion of a “War on Christmas” is easier than delving into the very real issues that plague our society.
Consumerism isn’t the problem, it is a symptom of what ails us. Even the “War on the Christmas” sideshow is a symptom of what ails us.
Often explicit though equally as often implicit in the complaints about the loss of Christmas spirit, and whining about people saying Happy Holidays rather than Merry Christmas is a yearning for unity, for a shared identity as Americans. Is American-ness defined properly as Christian, heterosexual, married, and living a nuclear family? Or is it something else? At the core of our national discontent is a profound question – What does it mean to be American? People complaining about someone wishing them Happy Holidays believe that being American has always meant that one is Christian. If we aren’t wishing people “Merry Christmas” then something essential about being American has been lost. Ultimately, it’s not about observing religious rites or attending a worship service or even believing a specific doctrine; it’s a claim about identity.
Now it’s obvious that this identity was formed in the Cold War era when lots of Americans were taught that their faith set them apart from the atheistic communists. In that era, faith – specifically Christianity – came to be associated with American identity. For a great many conservative Christians, the America that has emerged in the last thirty years – religiously pluralistic and increasingly diverse – is experienced as a loss of that central identity. Symbols matter when shaping identity. What ails us is a sense that our national identity is in flux – at the individual level, the community level and the national level. Christmas is important not for what it is but for what it symbolizes, it is a pressure point if you will of identity. Where once America was awash in Christmas as part of our national duty to reject atheism in the name of freedom, now America must reshape itself as a secular nation in which the real threats to world peace come from religious fundamentalists and religious fundamentalism. The long war against communism included a battle against unbelief. In our era, a key battle must be against too much belief and our defense is secularism. Our fundamentalists cannot beat their fundamentalists and a war of fundamentalisms is a recipe for howling barbarism, for genocide justified in the name of God. Reason and skepticism are our weapons in a war against too much belief. Christianism cannot defeat Islamism; the Enlightenment can.