The Christmas I grew up with is never coming back. In fact, there is a good chance that by the time I was growing up, it was already gone.
Just to give some context, Christmas Day, Dec. 25, is the religious celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Christians mark this day as one of the high points of the calendar. For Catholics, the four weeks before Christmas, called Advent, are supposed to be days of reflection and repentance in preparation for the birth of the Savior. The 12 days after Christmas are days of celebration ending with Little Christmas that marks the arrival of the three kings at the manger nursery the Holy Family occupied in those crazy days.
Well, forget all that.
There is no longer an Advent, rather I saw Christmas items for sale in September and the Friday after Thanksgiving, called Black Friday because it begins the sales cycle that puts retailers in the black, launches the nation into a frenzy of purchasing and bargains that often turn violent.
In fact, the ramp up for Christmas goes all the way to Christmas Day and then the next day it is all over. The lights come down and the Christmas trees get tossed on sidewalk for pickup and instead of 12 days of celebration, the last act in our new Christmas is the traditional trading in of gifts received in exchange for what people really wanted.
I am old enough to remember people saying “Merry Christmas!” But, go ahead and try saying that all day. It would be a surprise if you were not met with sneers—and if you are a public official, it would be a miracle if you do not get sued.
“Happy Holidays!” for a while became the fallback greeting, but in the last few years, unreconstructed Christians have made themselves pests by asking: “What holiday?” Other pests point out that holiday is really just a fast way of saying “Holy Day,” which is just too much religion.
“Season’s Greetings” and now “Winter Wishes,” are just other attempts to capture the spirit of Christmas without actually acknowledging Christmas or Christianity.
This endorsement of religiosity, is a clue to what is really going on. It is actually a rejection of a religion by a competing religion, the civil religion of America.
In 1967, Robert N. Bellah published an essay “Religion in America,” where he described the civil religion of America. The American civil religion begins with a founding legend of the American Revolution with its sacred documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Bellah then connects the dots to President Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. If the Revolution was like the Old Testament, Bellah said the Civil War story was like the New Testament. Lincoln “the martyred president” took on a Christ-like persona. The War Between the States was no longer about tariffs, western expansion or anything else except the freeing of the slaves, a noble crusade for which Lincoln killed for leading—and the sacred text of the Civil War is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Up until President John F. Kennedy, the civil religion and the various other religions co-existed in their own space. But, with Kennedy’s Catholic identity so central to his supporters and opponents, it was as if the civil religion and Christianity became united in one man and one moment.
But, alas, Johnny, we hardly knew ye. Kennedy’s 1963 death in Dallas broke apart this confluence and it sparked the battle for dominance between civil religion and the private religions, which given the challenge have put aside their own differences to unite to preserve their space in the public square.
Like Lincoln, Kennedy has been deified and joined the civil religion’s pantheon.
In 2013, there is little doubt which religion is winning. The government is taking over more and more of the economy and our own lives, and wherever the government holds sway, private religions have been driven out.
No more nativity scenes on town commons or Christmas parties in public schools—and no more “Merry Christmas.”
As we climb out of Christmas, look for the next holidays are not those of private religions. Look for the celebration of the deified Martin Luther King’s birthday, President’s Day, for Washington and Lincoln, and onward through the calendar with the great civil feasts of Memorial Day, a day steeped in the Civil War and the Fourth of July, celebrating the founding legend.
Civil religion is not atheism, and the war of Christmas is not imagined. The war on Christmas is part of the battle for dominance between civil and private religion and it is a battle civil religion is winning.
The good news for me is that civil religion has not completely won, yet—so, while it is still legal, let me wish you a very “Merry Christmas!”