So Long, Santa

Costco no longer puts “Christmas” on its holiday merchandising. Sellers want us to buy to help the financial slump but the reason for buying is not allowed to appear.

A student wished me a “Merry Winter Break.”

A mother of four tells me that even things like Santa have disappeared, just lights and wintery scenes. I did see a Santa on Wisconsin Avenue, and you could still sit on his lap for a photo. In retrospect, the Bing Crosby singing of “Happy Holidays” and even “White Christmas” was the beginning of the evaporation of Christmas. “Don’t impose Christmas on us” means “Keep it to yourself.”

Nativity scenes are rare. Christmas cards bear everything but Christmas, unless they are classic Christmas paintings from the National Gallery…

None of this is entirely new, though the exclusion seems more adamant. The founding Puritans forbade Christmas. We imitate them with a new scrupulosity. “Freedom from religion” becomes a more basic “right” than “freedom of religion.”

“‘Tis the season to be jolly,” but without evident cause. Peace on Earth to all Genders and Legal Arrangements of Good or Bad Will.

A Christian cannot but be amused by the earnestness with which signs of his religion are zealously hounded from the public square. In the park at the end of Key Bridge over the Potomac, the huge city Christmas tree has lights, but no crèche. The Tannenbaum was a pagan thing, though as Chesterton said, the only place the great pagan things are preserved is in the Church. “O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, how lovely are thy branches.”

“Putting Christ back into Christmas” is an old, worn theme. The celebration of Christmas as we know it is relatively recent. Every immigrant country has sent its own contribution. This country is a hodge-podge of many different Christmas traditions. When something is great and holy, it is not wrong to add to its greatness and holiness, to its delight.

But what about this “putting Christ back into Christmas?” When I first entered the Society of Jesus, the custom of most Jesuit houses was to treat Advent as a period of expectation, of penance. My own family had always put the tree up in mid-December, if not earlier. Anticipation was the mood. As novices, our first Christmas did not begin till Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The celebration was after the event, not before. The twelve days of Christmas were in fact counted. We did not take down Christmas decorations till the Octave of the Epiphany.

But I have a theory about the contemporary opposition to Christmas. It is often presented as a “don’t-impose-your-ideas-on-me” thing. Be careful about wishing someone “Merry Christmas.” His “rights” come before either your good will or your theology.

But my theory about the elimination of Christmas is more subtle than just prejudice or bigotry, which also exists. “Tis the season to be jolly.” You cannot celebrate something for no reason. All holidays were originally holy days. Celebrations could not be something simply “man-made.” They have to arise out of what is unexpected, startling, transcendent, too good to be true. We do not have holidays just to have holidays, though this moving everything to the weekend pretends you can. But this practice of “officially” moving feasts to Friday or Monday usually has the effect of downplaying their significance. They become merely another “weekend.”

Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation of the Son of God amongst us. The Word was indeed made flesh and did dwell amongst us. “Rejoice and be glad.” Much of the opposition to Christmas, I think, is rooted in a spiritual resentment or invidia that something did in fact happen during the time of Caesar Augustus. This event cannot be politically eradicated. Christmas joy and celebration bring its truth back to haunt the minds of men, whether they like it or not.

Since Herod, something sinister is connected with opposition to the Christ Child. The core opposition to Christianity today and throughout the ages is the refusal to accept that God could and did come among us as a man, as a Child, as flesh of our flesh. The existence of God is not really the problem; it is the existence of Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, made man to dwell amongst us. If this event did happen once, as it did, its effects are still among us, still presenting us with a “yes” or a “no” about the truth of the event.

Our political and religious rhetoric does not want this whole truth, even in vague images, to be presented as the truth it is. Christ did dwell amongst us, as Word, Logos. The world is necessarily different because of what this presence means. This presence in this world points to our salvation, to eternal life, as it is intended, beginning with Mary’s fiat.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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