As the Archbishop of Canterbury has already pointed out, it is something of a cliché of modern life around this time of year for Christians, among others, to bemoan the commercialism and consumer culture that surrounds what is ostensibly a Christian holiday.
Christmas is of course a time of giving, as it has been since the Magi arrived to see Jesus, complete with their kingly gold, priestly frankincense, and morbid (but gloriously symbolic) myrrh. Archbishop Justin Welby compelled people in a speech to give generously, and out of a desire to show affection rather than an attempt to buy it. "Save up for the Christmas budget, be sensible, don't put pressure on your finances – don't make your life miserable with Christmas."
In this regard, the Archbishop is appealing to an angle that seeks to make Christmas ultimately a more 'Christian' celebration. He admits that his comments will likely do little to stem the tide of gleeful shoppers and spenders, but remarks that it isn't the Christian part of Christmas that's getting people into debt. So the question to ask is, what does it really mean to have Jesus as the reason for the season?
On the one hand, there is the overt 'Christian-ness' of the season, something which many secularists are moving to fight against. This has become known as the 'war on Christmas', which has been battled in the form of things like towns and cities re-naming their Christmas celebrations 'Winterval' in recent years, and certain prominent shopping chains and charities in places such as the US, Canada, the UK, and South Africa dropping the word 'Christmas' from their literature and replacing it with 'Holidays' or other alternatives.
Sarah Palin, the darling of the conservative Tea Party movement, is the latest crusader to take up the fight against those seeking to undermine Christmas's religious roots. The former Republican Vice Presidential candidate is touring the US, beginning in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, America's self-styled "Christmas City", promoting her new book Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. Speaking to Newsmax, she said "Today, in too many respects, it's politically incorrect to acknowledge that Jesus is the reason for the season and Christ is the main part of Christmas… Those politically correct police . . . tell us that we must boot Christ out of Christmas. We're saying no, enough is enough of being intimidated."
It does seem though she is not merely tired of "angry athiests with lawyers" who oppose nativity scenes and other such issues, but there is a quite definite political edge here, with the other stops on her tour mysteriously coinciding with congressional districts where centrist Republicans look in danger of taking a challenge from the more radical right of the party.
It will be objectionable to some no doubt that a woman whose party has consistently stood up for monied interests should then go on to stand up for keeping the 'Christian' values at the centre of Christmas. Is that all that Christmas is, people will ask? An invocation of Jesus's name at a particular time? Remembering his birth on a day most likely several months away from his actual birthday? What is so Christian about that?
But the whole cultural war Sarah Palin's fighting in is possibly a disservice to the Christian cause at Christmas by focusing on the superficial symbolism of the festive season at the expense of the broader spirit.
The curious thing about American Christians fighting the war on Christmas is that they have a case, and yet they don't. On the one hand, the war on Christmas isn't, at least in its current form, going to stop a single individual from celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday if they want to. No laws have been passed limiting Christmas church services (something that did happen under the oppressively puritanical Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell), no protests have been organised to stop religious organisations from holding carolling sessions or nativity plays. All church activities relating to Christmas are 100% permitted.
And yet on the other hand, there is a type of danger of a curious form. When major forces in cultural propagation seek to marginalise or otherwise obscure a particular aspect of a social phenomenon, you have to ask firstly why, and second of all what that will mean. Will there ever come a time when, because of the pervasive and widespread secularised form of Christmas, where gifts, Father Christmas, Christmas Trees, Reindeer, and snow are all people see when mid-November arrives? It would no doubt be a problem if a secularised form of Christmas was so widespread that it obscured the religious one to the point that only those with immediate contact with the faithful would hear of it. And anyway, why would people want that?
Many secularists argue that because the symbols associated with Christmas are pre-Christian in origin, linking back instead to the pagan peoples of non-Roman Scandinavia, this move is simply a natural rebalancing now that Christianity has less cultural influence. But this is hardly a reversion to paganism. The secularist movement, when working against Christian influence, isn't doing so in the name of solstice celebrations or Druidic rights. That wouldn't make sense for secularism anyway, since it would be just replacing one religion with another. It would rather appear that they just don't like religion impacting on our cultural life. But the question is, why? If secularists truly don't believe in the power or importance of the word "Christ" or the person of Jesus, what does it matter if his birth is celebrated widely towards the end of the calendar year?
Can Christmas really just be, as many secularists seem to want it to be, a time of gift giving and family togetherness? If so, why then? What is holding the celebrations to this time of year? And what is anyone's obligation? Simple social pressure? Isn't that a kind of sad state of affairs? That people are only coming together to be nice to others because everyone else is doing the same. What kind of holiday is that?
It's ultimately true that what it means to have Jesus as the reason for the season is a combination of what Sarah Palin and Justin Welby are talking about. Christmas isn't simply hollow invocation of Jesus's name, and a determination to link his birth to a particular place and time. Nor is it simply the act of giving gifts and being with family. It runs deeper than either, entwining both, and bringing them together to give us something that God wants us to have all year round. The deep abiding knowledge that his son came to Earth for each of us, and the spirit of letting that knowledge inform our actions for the year to come, and every year after. That will definitely mean generosity, but not always of the kind we practise at Christmas i.e. a generosity of spirit and time, rather than money.