The War on Christmas

There is a war on Christmas. Presumably you have read about it - there are regular skirmishes at this time of year. This time a parade in Charleston WV became its epicenter for 72 hours after the mayor wanted it to be a “Winter” parade rather than a “Christmas” parade. One of the locals whose FB post was picked up by the NYT wrote more revealingly than intended, I suspect:

“The new mayor needs to be voted out if she does away with the Christmas parade. Christmas is all about Christ, not some winter parade.”

And then there was Scott Walker in Wisconsin tweeting with a decorated conifer insisting “this is not a holiday tree.” Given that was on the eighth of November it was hard to see how it could be an anything tree, although that may be a different point.

There is a war on Christmas - but it’s not that one. In fact those news stories are reports on one key battle that was lost long ago, during the mid-twentieth century. Once upon a time Christmas was a twelve-day feast, that began with Christmas Eve and ended at Epiphany on January 6th. That ancient Christian observance however was overcome generations ago by the invasion of Macy’s Christmas, which begins on Thanksgiving or Black Friday, and ends on Christmas Eve.

The weapons of that war were seemingly innocent: the Coca-Cola Santa, A Miracle on 34th St; cultural manipulations by commercial interests - or let’s call what it is, by capitalism - that conflated the life-affirming values of family and community and gift-giving with the practices of unfettered consumption. How insidious and how brilliant to persuade us that belief in the magic of Christmas was itself a kind of faith - a faith whose penitential rite was to induce guilt for not buying the right presents or enough of them, and whose sacraments came in consumption of licensed carbonated beverages and other branded consumer goods.

We lost that war long ago; so from now until Christmas Eve, Christians in the West actually live in occupied territory.

You may have observed that the two feasts both called “Christmas” don’t actually overlap. Sometimes this may enable us to make a peace of sorts, for Christians to engage good-humoredly (as we should) in holiday festivities and the warmth that undoubtedly can be found in the time of year. My point in analyzing this difference is not to induce further guilt and shame in a season that is not really very rewarding to those with less, or who have been wounded by its past expectations.

Let us not fail to notice however why the two seasons do not overlap. Macy’s Christmas begins by eviscerating Thanksgiving on the day after; Black Friday is the solemn ritualization of our not being thankful at all (let alone reflective about the occupation of the continent by colonialists), and insists that in fact neither we nor anyone else can properly be said to have what we need, let alone be thankful for it. Then it goes on to goad us into the shopping period that follows and which, remarkably, stops right when the other Christmas actually begins. The reason I suspect is simple - when the shopping is done, Macy’s Christmas is done. Homo mercantilis - commercial humanity - has reached its eschaton at Christmas Eve, and rests in glory.

What of the war on Christmas then? Scott Walker, and whatever outraged citizens of Charleston WV there really were, were not actually defending Christmas at all; they were defending the occupied territory that was won from the other Christmas long ago. And of course they are defending that occupied Christmas as a form of cultural hegemony over people of different races and religions. A White Christmas, indeed.

For Christians this present time, Advent, is a time of anticipation, of preparation; not to celebrate what has been won, or to defend the ruins of Christian cultural dominance - an illusion anyway - but to ponder what has been lost and needs to be found again. It’s not a time to be precious or self-righteous about the understandings of others. We need not refuse or scorn all that the world celebrates in this holiday season, whether or not it places the name “Christmas” on it; but let us not lose the opportunity to remember the difference.

Counting the calendar differently will not save us. It could be a sign of the resistance, but there are others meanwhile: to offer what we have to the poor, to consider the labor that underlies the objects we may give others, to share hospitality, to welcome and be welcomed without insisting that our name or brand is what defines or shapes the act. Yet in some small ways, whatever they may be, we do need to remember and build life practices in this Advent that are the customs and culture of a different country.

It is not a bad thing for us to realize how alienated we are even from this season that appropriates the person of Jesus, how it has been occupied and distorted. Jesus himself was to be born on occupied territory, to set his people free. He came and found many of them, like us, quite wedded to their captivity, thank you very much. We anticipate his coming, not because we needed something additional in our over-filled lives, but because we need something different. He needs to free us from sin, from oppression, he even needs to free us from Christmas.

Even so, come Lord Jesus.

[Preached in Marquand Chapel of Yale Divinity School, December 2 2019]


  1. This is a really important and well written sermon. Thank you for sharing it. You have put into succinct and thoughtful words what I have been struggling with for the entirety of my 30+ year ministry. I would love to share it with the congregation I serve, Bethany UCC in Montpelier, VT, this Sunday in the sermon spot. May I have your permission to preach it, with proper accreditation? Let me know.

    1. Please feel free to use as may be helpful. Thank you for your comment.


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