Sunday, December 9, 2007

Santa, St. Nicholas, and Touchdown Jesus

A few years ago I read Touchdown Jesus: The Mixing of Sacred and Secular In American History. While I disagree with R. Laurence Moore’s underlying premise that religion is and should be a private matter (he is most interested when it “trespasses” into the public square) he does offer some quality insights into the peculiarities of religion and America especially when it comes to Christmas.

Moore begins by asking, “How is it possible that at the start of the 21st century, with seemingly everyone sensitive to issues of religious pluralism, and relatively few people declaring publicly any longer that America is a Christian nation, that a day which explicitly sets one of the worlds religions above all others is a national holiday? Is not the public recognition given to Christmas a far greater violation of church/state separation than school prayer?...With the exception of the highly secularized national day of Thanksgiving, Christmas is the only religious holiday that gets national recognition, and with surprisingly little complaint” (p.28).

Moore builds his case to answer this question on the national economy. He suggests that American Protestants had thrown out the holiday of Christmas because it was a Roman Catholic creation. And yet, Christmas slowly eased back into the American consciousness through the practice of giving gifts. Moore states, “American commerce saw a way to make money. American gift giving recalled less the visit of the three magi to the Christ child than the visit of St. Nicholas (later the jolly American Santa Claus)…[which with department stores] transformed Christmas in America into an economic necessity. American prosperity from year to year stands or falls on the success of sales during the holiday season. No imaginable Supreme Court is going to create obstacles to this consumer juggernaut. Nor is any Jewish group or Islamic group likely to finance a test case to bring down Christmas. They too are merchants” (p. 28-29).

It seems that the religious connotations of the holiday have been suppressed while another consumer oriented, general good will type of message has co-opted the holiday. What continues to surprise me is that Christians both recognize that “their” holiday has been co-opted which they are upset about, and yet, they are quite unwilling to make the changes to subvert what it has become. It would seem they want consumerism and Jesus without considering whether or not that consumerism is compatible with the anticipation of Advent or the life of Jesus. I believe Moore is right when he states, “To people who say every year that it is time to put Christ back in Christmas, there are two possible answers. The first is that he has never been there, so no model exists for putting him back. The second answer is also a warning-if Christ ever were allowed to dominate the public celebration of Christmas, the national holiday would have to be scrapped” (29).