Those news stories are reports on the mop-up operation from a key battle over Christmas that was lost to major retailers during the early and mid-20th century.
Once upon a time, Christmas was a 12-day feast that began with Christmas Eve and ended at Epiphany on Jan. 6. In the days prior, the church traditionally observed not Christmas but Advent, a time of preparation and reflection in a period that includes the four Sundays before Christmas.
For many years, these were not much observed in the colonies; in New England, the Puritans fought in the 17th century to suppress Christmas. Only in the 19th century, through the popularity of works like Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, a seminary professor whose father was an Episcopal bishop, did Christmas experience a sort of new beginning there.
Yet without strongly established norms of time and tradition, a quiet but real battle ensued. The victors were not the believers but the merchants.
For what Americans actually observe is not the traditional Christian feast of 12 days, but a “retail Christmas” that begins on Thanksgiving or Black Friday and ends on Christmas Eve.
The weapons of that war in the 1930s and 1940s were seemingly innocent — the Coca-Cola Santa, “Miracle on 34th Street” — cultural manipulations by capitalism that conflated the life-affirming values of family, 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 practice was guilt for not buying the right presents or enough of them, and whose sacraments came as licensed carbonated beverages and branded consumer goods.
So that war was won and lost, and Christians, who by rights would be observing the penitential season of Advent now, not trimming trees or sipping eggnog, were not the winners.
The two feasts both called “Christmas” don’t actually overlap; one begins just as the other ends. “Retail Christmas” begins by eviscerating Thanksgiving on the day after. Black Friday is the solemn ritualization of not being thankful at all (let alone reflective about the occupation of the continent by colonialists), and solemnly affirms that neither we nor anyone else have what we need, nor hence can we be thankful. Then it goads us into the shopping period that follows and which, remarkably, stops on Christmas Eve, right when the traditional Christmas actually began. The reason is simple. When the shopping is done, “Macy’s Christmas” is done. Homo mercantilis — commercial humanity — has reached its climax at Christmas Eve and rests in glory.
What of the war on Christmas then? Walker and outraged citizens of Charleston really were not defending Christmas at all. They were defending the occupied territory won from the other Christmas long ago, not as a witness to faith, but as a form of cultural hegemony — a “White Christmas,” indeed.
For Christians today, Advent could again be a time of anticipation and of preparation. Not to celebrate what has been won, or to defend the ruins of Christian cultural dominance, but to ponder what has been lost and must be found again, including by people of faith. Counting the calendar differently will not save us from the vortex of mindless consumption by itself, but could be a sign of the resistance.
It’s not a time to be precious or self-righteous. We need not refuse or scorn all that the world celebrates in this holiday season, whether it places the name “Christmas” on it. It is a season to share hospitality, to welcome and be welcomed without insisting that our name or brand defines or shapes the act. So too, when it is time for celebration and gifts, it is a season to share what we have with the poor, to consider the labor that made the objects we may give or how they have impacted the fragile Earth.
It is not a bad thing to realize how alienated Christians have become from this season that appropriates Jesus, who, after all, was born in occupied territory, too.
People anticipate Jesus’ coming at this time of year, not because we need something additional in our overfilled lives, but because we need something quite different, either from the seasonal excesses or from the Christian pretensions of what now passes as Christmas. People of faith know they need to be freed from sin, from suffering and from oppression; they may even need Jesus to free them from Christmas.
Andrew McGowan is dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, a historian of early Christianity and a priest of the Anglican Communion.