January Thoughts: Why the ‘Post-Christian World’Clings to Christmas
by Edwin Faust
January 5, 2013Liturgically it is still Christmas, but in the commercial calendar the great feast day of consumerism has expired and the merchandisers and marketers are gearing up for the lesslucrative but still significant generator of sales: Valentine’s Day. Mammon has a heart, but it isfilled with overpriced chocolate.We are living in a time of what might be called parallel liturgies: one religious, onesecular, with the latter vying to replace the former. This attempted usurpation has promptedreligious media to chronicle each year what has been called “the war against Christmas.”Bloggers duly report the lawsuits against Nativity Scenes in public places and chastise retailerswho replace “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” in their store displays andadvertisements.A billboard in New York’s Times Square this past December featured two faces: SantaClaus and Christ, with the former on top, and the corresponding captions, “Keep the Merry …Dump the Myth.” The design and wording were clever and concise, and the outrage by Christiancritics muted and largely ignored. It was clever to suggest in so few words that Christ is the mythand Santa Claus, or what his figure represents, is real. But this cleverness also reveals a shallow,if not wholly absent, appreciation of precisely what it is that constitutes “the Merry.”There has never been, nor will there ever be, a purely secular holiday. Even a superficialknowledge of history makes it plain that every culture that has ever existed has set aside as holycertain days or times of the year. A day becomes holy when we dedicate it to remembering andcelebrating the Divine gift of life. And it is the recognition of the gratuitous nature of life thatinforms the rituals of the feast, with all its extravagances; its abandonment, for a time, of thestrictly pragmatic; and its lavish, seemingly wasteful expenditure of time and money to celebratethe sheer wonder and joy of simply being.In a moment of candor, which remained conspicuously unexplored by further inquiry, thelate militant atheist Christopher Hitchens risked tarnishing his halo as a saint of secularism byadmitting that were it in his power to abolish religion once and for all, he would not do it. Why?Religion supposedly poisons everything and is the root of all evil. Why keep it? But Hitchenswas not pressed to explain. It was as though he had been guilty of an embarrassing lapse inmanners from which his admirers tactfully turned their heads away.I think the answer may lie in the reason the designers of the Times Square billboard wantto “Keep the Merry.” Why keep any remnant of what one regards as a pernicious superstition?