Sometime between me writing this and you reading it, something will go down in a mall or a town square that will seize the national consciousness and shake it by its festive red plaid lapels. Oh, I don’t know what it will be—a 75-year-old granny will dislocate a struggling single mother’s shoulder in a Black Friday brawl for the last PlayStation 4. Or a decorator will snap together a few Christmas trees for an airport display and Bill O’Reilly will sensitively declare that anyone who doesn’t like it should move to Iran.
Something petty and/or offensive and/or grotesquely consumerist will take place this season, as it always does, and the punditocracy will lose its mind, and somewhere someone will say it: It’s time to put the “Christ” back in Christmas!
Last year’s flap—an earnest and protracted dispute over whether Santa is white—laid out with singular absurdity the nature of these debates. Santa might be many things, but surely we can agree that pretend is foremost among them. (Sorry kids!) Of course the whole flare-up was just 2013’s version of the core problem: the oppression people feel when denied public expression of their particular Christmas traditions.
And doesn’t everyone feel a little oppressed by Christmas? Clearly believers of other faiths do, whenever they feel forced to be unwitting extras in someone else’s religious drama. And cultural observers, who attach no religious significance to the holiday but who long in vain for it to be a pure celebration of goodwill toward all. And aesthetic haters, whose gut response to the strains of the first “Silent Night” in Walgreens—in October—is the desire to stab themselves with a pumpkin saw. And of course that particular breed of true believer—the kind who sees America as a Christian nation—who is genuinely aghast that anyone could see a crèche in city hall as anything but the highest expression of American values.
Sometimes it seems as if the last uniting thing about Christmas is its equal-opportunity betrayal of everyone’s values. So why not build on that universal disappointment and remake the holiday to serve us all?
You know, take the Christ out of Christmas?
It would be like a divorce. The cultural celebrators would get custody of all secular expressions of the holiday—the mistletoe, the wreath, the singing outside, the tree—all of which derive from pre-Christian pagan rituals anyway, and as such have always coexisted queasily with the babe in the manger. They’d get Santa, whatever race he is, and gift-giving, and colored lights, and candy canes, and Black Friday, and “Deck the Halls,” and “Santa Baby” (the Eartha Kitt, Madonna, and Ariana Grande versions), and all free-floating secular feelings of nostalgia, and—why not!—December 25, which, sitting nearly atop the pagan winter solstice of December 21, leaves little doubt as to its origins.
What they wouldn’t get is Christ—not the name, not the birth story. So religious carols would be out, as would Midnight Mass and Christmas pageants…and yes, the word Christmas. Christians, among whom I count myself, would get custody of all that. It remains to be determined what secular celebrators would call their December gift-giving frenzy—Festivus has a familiar ring—but Christians would unequivocally get “Christmas,” which we could freely keep according to our own sectarian pleasure, much as we do Pentecost or Epiphany. Free at last to celebrate Advent and Christmastide within their original Christian contexts—as religious holidays—Christians could again draw spiritual satisfaction from the celebration. Perhaps even relocate it closer to the actual birthday of the historical Jesus, which most scholars put in the spring.
The secular celebration could become as inclusive as the American ideal itself, embracing all comers. No longer sidelined by the party of the year, Muslims and Jews could jump right into the nonreligious feel-good celebration of giving without a shred of sacrilege. Christmas celebrators, no longer having to bridge the unbridgeable chasm between God with Us and Doorbuster Deals, could stop desperately flogging the citizenry with public manger scenes—and enjoy the novelty of sincerity.
And for the haters? All right, they might loathe Festivus songs every bit as much as they do Christmas carols. But I’ve long suspected that what most of the haters hate isn’t Christmas, per se…it’s the deep disconnect they detect at its heart. When the ostensible story of a holiday is that the God of the Universe chose to participate in the human condition by being born to a poor, unwed teenage refugee, in an occupied country, in a barn—well, the word humble does come to mind. Not exactly a quality one associates with the consumerist blowout Christmas has become.
Not to worry, the Christians would get custody of the humility. You know, if they’ll take it.