How Jesus' birth became an 'American Christmas'

By Thomas S. Kidd

Polls released this week by USA TODAY/Gallup and LifeWay Research confirm what many Christians have suspected for some time: America's Christmas is no longer centered on Jesus. But that does not mean that Christmas is irreligious. Instead, Christmas in America has become, along with the Fourth of July, America's great festival of civil religion, a veneration of American values: family, shopping, and faith — whatever that "faith" means to you.

Whether this is a good or bad thing probably depends on the nature of your beliefs. Should it bother devout Christians that 9 out of 10 Americans celebrate Christmas, and that many Muslims, Jews, agnostics, and atheists join in the festivities? These facts reveal a great deal about how inclusive, non-sectarian and "American" our Christmas has become. Less than half of Americans say they attend church services on Christmas — probably even fewer actually go. Less than a third read the Christmas story from the Bible.

How did we get to the point where the celebration of the birth of the Son of God to a virgin has become an all-American festival? One of the reasons, of course, is that there was a time in the American past, at the founding of the nation, when being American meant being at least nominally Christian, save for a tiny minority of Jews and Muslims (the latter could only be found among recently arrived African slaves). Christmas in 1776 could easily be construed as a common American holiday.

In those early years of the new nation, Christmas was a quiet affair, celebrated mostly in homes and churches. Families typically were not physically distant from one another like today, so Christmas in 1776 did not mean airports and interstates. The travel that was required was more of the "one-horse open sleigh" variety. And there were no Christmas light displays — despite Ben Franklin's best efforts, we did not yet have electricity.

We can conveniently trace the origins of the modern American Christmas to the 1930s, when the Coca-Cola company began to use now-familiar depictions of Santa Claus to market their soda. If Christmas was to sell products, it could not be sectarian — being divisive about religion limits market share. So Santa, Rudolph, and Frosty came to the fore, while Jesus became more commonly sequestered in church.

Slowly Christmas became primarily about buying gifts for family, who often lived far away. The beginning of the shopping season moved back to the day after Thanksgiving. Christmas became the make-or-break month for the retail sector. By the 1980s and 1990s, the slogan "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" had become ubiquitous in America, because we needed to reassure ourselves that this was the case.

American Christmas has become a time to splurge on products we've wanted — or to ask someone else to splurge for us. For many of us, it is also a time to see distant family members, separated during the year due to the vagaries of attending college and getting jobs in the modern global economy. Affirming our devotion to family with travel, gifts, and food surely is not a bad (or un-Christian) thing in and of itself, although our once-a-year visits with certain family members can lead to ungodly conflict! But this American Christmas tends to steer the devout Christian's attention away from the coming of the Savior.

Unless we want to get radical and reject America's commercial Christmas altogether, believers will just have to get used to celebrating two Christmases at the same time: American Christmas and Christian Christmas. I think we can do this with a relatively clear conscience, as long as we avoid vices — like overspending and gluttony — that often accompany American Christmas. Celebrating this all-American holiday is great, but the faithful will need to find ways to remember that the transcendent ultimately trumps the ephemeral in Christmas.

The transcendent meaning of Christmas lies with the divine child of Bethlehem.

Thomas S. Kidd, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University, is the author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. ... 3_ST_N.htm