In the seven years since my first essay on the War Against Christmas appeared in Chronicles, I have had no trouble writing at least one such essay per year, because each year brings new and outrageous attempts to suppress the public celebration of Christmas. My favorite example was the 2002 winner of VDare.com’s invaluable War Against Christmas Competition that I analyzed in The American Conservative in Christmas 2003. The Columbus, Ohio, schools banned a performance of Handel’s Messiah, which for the previous nine years had been the highlight of the year at a specialized school for the arts. The performance would have violated the district’s religious-music policy, which came into being as the result of an ACLU lawsuit.
According to the Columbus Dispatch, the policy stipulated that the proportion of religious music performed in concert be no more than 30 percent and that the performance of religious music be “based on sound curricular reasons” and not “manifest a preference for religion or particular religious beliefs.” The educational bureaucrats who devised the policy, trying to be helpful, suggested the students perform “Frosty the Snowman” or “Jingle Bells” instead of Handel. Their ignorance and philistinism are appalling, though characteristic of those waging the War Against Christmas. After hearing Messiah performed in London, Haydn was moved to exclaim that “Handel is the master of us all!” and to write his own great oratorio, The Creation. But, in today’s climate of “sensitivity” and “tolerance,” beauty and artistic merit are scarcely a sufficient warrant for exposing delicate ears to the name of Christ.
This example, precisely because it is so appalling, gives us a clear idea of what is at stake in the War Against Christmas. As I wrote in The American Conservative, “The result of sanitizing Christmas is now within sight: an undistinguished, uninspiring public celebration, devoid of religious or cultural significance or indeed of beauty, with nothing left but multiculturalist pap and tawdry commercialism.” The War Against Christmas is a part of the larger war against the heritage of the West. It goes by such names as “multiculturalism,” “political correctness,” and “cultural Marxism” and seeks to destroy the traditional culture of the West and, ultimately, the West itself. Although embittered atheists are often shock troops in the War Against Christmas, the hostility to religion is noticeably selective: The public celebration in America of Hanukkah, Ramadan, and Diwali as faux-Christmases (even though the Islamic lunar calendar is taking Ramadan further and further away from December) has never been more pronounced. This is not happening by accident, nor is it restricted to America. As the Daily Mail reported on November 1, 2007, a Labour think tank had urged that Christmas be “downgraded” as part of an “urgent and upfront campaign” to promote a “multicultural understanding of Britishness,” and part of this campaign is the elevation of non-Christian holidays with temporal proximity to Christmas.
However, none of this is irreversible. As I wrote on VDare.com during Christmas in 2003, there are several mundane steps that would help in the effort to make Christmas again a time for joyous and beautiful public celebration. We need to let movie studios, retailers, school boards, and politicians know that those of us who love Christmas vastly outnumber the malcontents, and that we do not appreciate what has happened to the public celebration of our holiday. We need, in essence, a new Legion of Decency, an organization that helped ensure both that Hollywood did not make movies assaulting Christmas and that it made movies that celebrated Christmas, including such classics from Hollywood’s Golden Age as It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, The Bishop’s Wife, and The Bells of St. Mary’s, the movie being shown in Bedford Falls as George Bailey runs down its snowy streets on Christmas Eve. Boycotting bad movies works. Last year Hollywood celebrated Christmas by releasing The Golden Compass, a movie based on Philip Pullman’s atheist children’s trilogy. Once word got out about who Pullman was and what he believed, the movie tanked at the U.S. box office, and it is now unlikely that the two planned sequels will ever be made.
Numbers are surely on our side. Polls show that up to 96 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas. This effort need not be entirely negative—even though some polite, forceful complaining will be necessary. We can start wishing others “Merry Christmas” again. We can buy only cards that mention Christmas and let both the retailer and the card maker know why we are doing that. On our Christmas cards that actually mention Christmas we can make a point of using only the USPS’s Christmas stamp, and we can tell them why we prefer that stamp to the generic “Season’s Greetings” alternative. (Indeed, only a popular outcry saved the Christmas stamp from the p.c. chopping block in the mid-1990’s.) We can patronize retailers who actually mention the holiday that is the source of their good fortune and tell them why we prefer to shop there. We can also share essays on the War Against Christmas with our friends and relatives: People are much more likely to act when they realize they are not alone, and others have expressed sentiments they share but have been reluctant to voice.
At a deeper level, we need to cultivate the traditions that make Christmas special in our own homes, churches, and communities. From an early age, I learned from what I saw and experienced that the gifts brought by Santa were only a tiny part of the reason why Christmas was special. It was when our home looked special, when we brought out ornaments we had cherished for years, and some my dad had kept from his childhood, to put on our tree; when we ate the same dinner on Christmas Eve that our family had eaten for centuries; and when we listened to some of the exquisite music inspired by Christmas, including the beautiful Polish carols I have loved my whole life and the music my uncle and my cousin’s wife played for us on the cello and violin at our Christmas Eve dinner. Such things did not happen anytime else during the year, and they helped instill in me a lasting love for Christmas and a desire to learn about and experience more facets of the celebration of Christmas.
In cultivating the traditions of Christmas, we are also being nourished by some of the deepest wellsprings of Western civilization. Over the course of centuries, the celebration of Christmas became splendid and multifaceted, a testament to the genius of our civilization and a holiday that, because of its cultural significance, can be and is enjoyed even by those who do not believe in Christ. As Paula Simons, a non-Christian, wrote in the Edmonton Journal five years ago,
Traditional Christmas carols are beautiful songs. They combine rich, lyric poetry with melodies of timeless power. A child who grows up hearing and singing the likes of God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen or Silent Night . . . or the other great world classics gets a profound musical education. The intricate harmonies and modalities of real carols don’t just move our hearts. They train our ears to appreciate more sophisticated musical forms and our voices to sing in concert with others.
She is exactly right. No other festival has inspired even a tiny fraction of such great music. For those seeking a bright-line test on how to treat competing winter holidays, I have suggested equal emphasis on all winter holidays which have had music written for them by Johann Sebastian Bach. And Simons’ comments point to yet another way the War Against Christmas can be won.
Christmas is, of course, a celebration of the birth of Christ and the mystery of the Incarnation. But it is also the celebration that most helped shape the West. As Thomas Cahill explains in his Mysteries of the Middle Ages,
Roman Christians found their attention drawn to the most down-to-earth aspect of the Trinitarian doctrine: the Infleshing, the Incarnation, the Making of the God-Man. What, they asked themselves, are the practical consequences—to human beings—of the Word becoming Flesh? From this question will flow, with some notable divagations, the main course of what was to become Western Christianity.
Although Roman Christians “agreed in principle” with their Greek coreligionists that Easter was the “supreme Christian feast,” “in practice they came to prefer Christmas.” And this preference for Christmas had profound consequences.
Cahill tells the charming story of how Saint Francis of Assisi created the first crèche at Midnight Mass in Greccio. In the words of Saint Bonaventure, Francis “made ready a manger, and bade hay, together with an ox and an ass, be brought unto the place.” Cahill particularly focuses on why the saint did this: “I wish to make a memorial of that child who was born in Bethlehem and, as far as possible, behold with bodily eyes the hardships of his infant state, lying on hay in a manger with the ox and the ass standing by.” By trying to recreate “as far as possible” what had happened in Bethlehem, Francis had, according to Cahill, asked a “wholly new question,” a question that was “historical, emotional, particular, and human: what would it have been like to be there?” This emphasis on realism, so different from the Christian iconography that characterized Eastern religious art, meant that “In the town of Greccio on Christmas night in 1223 were born the arts as we still know them.”
A generation later, Giotto, “throughout his adult life a Franciscan tertiary,” painted that scene in Greccio in fresco in the magnificent basilica built to commemorate Francis in Assisi, and the first Christmas is part of his equally famous frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Giotto’s
eucharistic Catholicism, informed by a Franciscan spirit, pushed him toward a nearly scientific quest to reproduce more exactingly in art the very things his eyes could see, his hands could touch, his heart could love—and preeminently among these lovable things was the human body itself.
And this realism, grounded in the incarnational theology of the Western Church, had a profound impact:
[Giotto’s] work is done. His influence on generations to come, whether direct or indirect, on sculptors as well as painters, on Renaissance and modern artists as well as late-medieval ones—on Pisano, Ghiberti, Donatello, the Della Robbias, Fra Angelico, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, and Mantegna, on the inevitable trio of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael, and perhaps especially on that most inspired supernaturalist Caravaggio—will be immeasurable. . . . And that is how life became art.
Thus, it is no exaggeration to state that the Western artistic tradition is inextricably linked to the celebration of Christmas.
We should never tire of emphasizing this, and of reminding those who wish to “downgrade” Christmas of all they are denigrating. The indisputable cultural significance of Christmas should sweep aside any fair-minded objections to its public celebration and reveal those who still object to be motivated by a hatred of Christmas or of Christianity or of the West, as indeed many of those waging the War Against Christmas are. If the War Against Christmas is to be won, it will be by remembering who we are and how we got here, and by summoning the courage to defend the great legacy bequeathed us by those who went before.
Contributing editor Tom Piatak writes from Cleveland, Ohio.
This article first appeared in the December 2008 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.