Michael: Christmas vs. Holiday ControversyThe latest front in the Christian fundamentalist kulturkampf has opened on Chistmas. The target is retailers who use the supposedly secular and generic word 'holiday' instead of 'Christmas' in retail and public contexts. Once again, the Christian Right is set to antagonize the majority of Americans with their cultural presumptions. As long as their harrassment remains in the form of private boycotts and campaigns, there will likely be little backlash, but it seems that Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert is willing to jump in on the cultural Christmas wassailing by bringing the controversy into the Capitol. Such presumption might generate wider resentments.
There is a great deal of historical irony in fundamentalist Protestants claiming Christmas as their own (not to mention certain hypocrisies). There is no textual support for the date of Christ's birth. The date was only fixed in the 4th century, mainly as a means of coopting existing winter solstace celebrations. And the whole idea of a "Christ Mass", with its smack of Catholic ceremony and orthodoxy, should be anathema to real Protestants.
The cultural centrality of Christmas to the Christian identity is really rooted more deeply in the growth of American consumer culture than it is in Christian theology. It wasn't until the publication of culturally transformative works about Christmas and St. Nicholas/Knecht Ruprecht/Belsnickle/Kriss Kringle/Santa Claus by Clement Clarke Moore, Charles Dickens and others in the early to mid-ninteenth century that Christmas was tranformed from a rowdy agricultural night of wanton misrule to a domestic holiday focused on the delight of children - and a handmaiden to the growth of consumer spending. Christmas was not even recognized as official holidays by the States until it was adopted sporadically from the 1840s through the 1860s.
Can Christmas be 're-sanctified' by insisting on saying 'Christmas' instead of 'holiday'? I doubt it. Christmas has always been a hetrodox occassion, celebrated by some as a time for public celebration and excess, either of vice or of consumption, and by others as a time of quiet reflection and religious devotion. So much of the ritual and trappings which Americans associate with Christmas are the products of a decidedly secular consumer culture that there is a certain irony in Christian fundamentalists trying to claim the holiday by controling its name. They say that the power to name a thing is the power to control it, but this attempt to control Christmas by a narrow, self-appointed faction of Christians is unlikely to accomplish more than to generate further resentment of their efforts to enforce their cultural prerogatives on American society via an ongoing political 'culture war'.