Sunday, December 27, 2009

As Christmas Goes, So Goes the Nation

12/27/2009—The statistics say that America is only 76% Christian. But you could not prove it by Christmas, which occupies an absolute cultural centrality. I spent Christmas in upstate New York, which is still relatively uniform in race and religion: white Christian. But I don’t think it would have mattered all that much where you looked.

You see the grip of Christianity on American culture slipping in many other ways: national acceptance of gambling and alcohol (Protestant decline), divorce (Catholic decline), commerce and entertainment on Sunday (decline of both) and gay marriage (decline of both). Pentecost has no cultural weight. Easter is in noticeable decline. But not Christmas.

Part of the reason is capitalism. The gift-giving orgy cannot be allowed to die because retail health currently depends on it. So the huge American advertising machine, complete with holiday music, movies, media stories and iconic images, the commercial/entertainment complex, is now keeping Christmas healthy. You may have noticed that almost all the Christmas songs played are about “Christmas” and not about Christ. And they really are about family and relationships and not about the birth of Christianity (Elvis' "Blue Christmas"). Even where the Christian myth is invoked, the birth of a child returns to its mythic origins rather than its theologically Christian meaning ("Do you hear what I hear?").

Part of the reason is biology. There is a reason that the early Church chose December 25 to celebrate as Christmas. Many cultures celebrate the winter solstice. Many cultures take a break as winter settles in. The six week period from Thanksgiving through the New Year is a natural holiday season in the northern hemisphere.

Part of the reason for the health of Christmas is the presence of Thanksgiving and the New Year, religiously neutral holidays that form the bookends of Christmas and support a holiday spirit during the whole season.

Anyway, as we continue to think about what an increasingly secular America will be like, we should assume that Christmas will continue to play an enormous, even dominant, part in the culture. On the other hand, the American Christmas will continue to secularize. Christmas will become another American holiday rather than a specifically Christian one.

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