Cultural Identity and the War on Christmas

I’ve been thinking about the War on Christmas recently. The War on Christmas, in case you are blessed enough to have not heard of it, is the debate over whether to have a specific celebration of Christmas or a generic celebration of various holidays this time of year. It includes the question of whether to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” whether to have a Christmas parade or a holiday parade, and whether nativity scenes should be permitted on public property. I wrote a satirical post on it last year, but this time around I’d like to take a more serious look at it.

First, I want to say that I don’t think there is anything wrong with wishing one another a merry Christmas. After all, if you celebrate Christmas, there is no reason why you shouldn’t say “Merry Christmas” to one another. The only possible reason why I wouldn’t like saying “Merry Christmas” at this point in the liturgical year is that we are still technically in the season of Advent.

But the War on Christmas is not about wishing one another a merry Christmas; it is about preserving cultural identity. We don’t say “Merry Christmas” because we want people to have a merry Christmas; we say “Merry Christmas” because WE CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS AND WE’RE NOT GOING TO LET ANYONE TELL US WE CAN’T TALK ABOUT CHRISTMAS IN PUBLIC. See the difference? I mean, besides the capital letters. In the first case, we are celebrating what Christmas means for us: the Incarnation, the fulfillment of long-ago promises, the hope that Jesus will come again. In the second case, all of that is shoved to the background. What takes center stage is our identity as Christmas-celebrants as opposed to celebrants of other holidays.

This is ironic, because Jesus clashed with those Jews who made much of their cultural identity. They stressed that they were descendants (sperma) of Abraham and disciples of Moses (Jn 8:33, 39; 9:28). Jesus acknowledged that they were Abraham’s descendants, but that wasn’t enough for him. He stressed instead that if they were really Abraham’s children (tekna), they would be doing what Abraham did (Jn 8:39-40). Cultural identity as Abraham’s descendants was not enough; they needed to be Abraham’s children, which meant doing what Abraham did. John the Baptist, likewise, told the Pharisees and Sadducees who came out to see him that cultural identity was not enough (Mt 3:7-10; Lk 3:8-9). People needed to produce fruit in keeping with repentance.

I have sympathy for folks who want to be the kind of people who say “Merry Christmas.” The media tells us that this is an important battle to fight, and after all, being a person who says “Merry Christmas” is a lot easier than being a disciple. But let’s not fool ourselves; it is the latter which is required of Christians.

By all means, wish people a merry Christmas. But don’t do it because you want to be the kind of person (or church) who says “Merry Christmas.” Do it because Christmas is a joyous season – a time to celebrate God’s faithfulness – and you want others to share in that joy. The moment when saying “Merry Christmas” becomes less about a joyous celebration of what God has done and more about the preservation of our cultural identity, we have become Pharisees: religious people who are more focused on their religion than on the reasons behind it.


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