Christian friends, the season is upon us. Not, as some of you seem to think, just your season either. Our season. All of us.
The fact is, any thriving society needs community holidays and social rituals. And Christmas is simply one of the finest ever conceived: a holiday that boasts its own distinct cultural spirit. If you think that non-believers can’t appreciate it, you’re quite wrong. Why would we need disown it, or turn up our nose at it? It’s as much ours as yours in its modern character and conception. We don’t even need to take the Christ out of Christmas: we can recognize its roots even as we enjoy its modern fruits, finding spiritual meaning in stories without having to believe in the supernatural pretensions. Mythology can be meaningful too, after all.
And really, countless nominally Christian households will today proceed to celebrate it with barely more than a passing thought or a few mumbled words about Christ. The day will instead be filled with Santa’s leavings, families reconnecting, banter, smiles, and even religious songs belted out without any recognition or interest in their lyrics. In short, what will dominate this season is the power of human community and collective celebration. Not theology. The rituals of human creativity and expression will rule. Not any singular sacred story.
Thus, as we all know that the Christian Christmas seems to have started life as a pagan celebration (and as a recent archeological find suggests, one that early Christians may have designed to help entice pagans into the fold), we should then find it only fitting that secular society is slowly converting the holiday yet again to serve its ends. Our culture has consumed and processed Christmas, giving it new life and new purpose. Birthing new myths that are as powerful and memorable as the original, from Santa to the Gift of the Magi to Scrooge to mistletoe makeouts.
If the more devout among you find all of this garish and objectionable, you’re not without precedent. Some early American Christians even banned the holiday, disdaining the boisterous reveling and the cultural ties to hated political enemies. Perhaps they felt things slipping out of their control, even then. But it’s too late now.
Perhaps still regretting these changes, many folks bemoan them by proxy, targeting the crass commercialization of the holiday. But when you come right down to it, even commercialization has its place: the unlovely but undeniable lifeblood of modern American culture. It’s easy to paint buying and selling as vacuous, but this picture is careless and shallow: many of the most beloved Christmas ideas, stories, and specials were born out of marketing schemes.
Further, while material goods are surely no substitute for sentiment, they are, you must admit, still a powerful medium for it. Gifts, whatever their intrinsic value, are also a telling check on relationships (how well does your spouse really know you these days?), an excuse to meditate on the lives and needs of others, and of course the evocative of ever enjoyable shared suspense and release of consumption. In a world where everything you want or need is a credit card swipe away, it’s, if anything, a welcome break from this classic consumerism to trust in the judgement of others to supply your hearts desire, or to ferret out the very thing you never knew you wanted. In a world where few think of the needy in any case, the glut of goodies can even be an engine of guilt and subsequent charity. Christmas, in short, has humanized conventional consumerism more than consumption has corrupted Christmas back.
No doubt there are plenty of other complaints against a modern Christmas. But all have failed to change its course overmuch, failed to keep an increasingly skeptical age from making the holiday its own: making it safe and sacred for families, rather than for sectarian agendas.
So Merry Christmas, dear Christian friends. And a happy new holiday to all, ever changing. You’ve given us a wonderful gift, and for that many of us non-believers are truly grateful. We’ll keep it, I think.
Update: Just in time for my observations about Christians who can’t seem to stomach or understand atheists and holidays, Dinesh D’Souza continues his slide from interesting conservative critic to foaming fruitcake with his latest ignorance-filled rant. Ilya Somin points out how D’Souza’s hatred has made him painfully sloppy and incoherent. Randy Balko is having none of his caricature of libertarians. What a whiny little Grinch!