“Secular Christmas”: A Critique of the Critique

The lights are twinkling, the Salvation Army bells are ringing, and Christians are up in arms against the supposed secular “war” on Christmas: it’s definitely Advent.  And when I see the ploys of an aggressive secularism (see exhibit A, above) that would remove any mention of the name of Christ from Christmas, I’m liable to join their outcry: “Holiday” trees just don’t seem right.

But alongside this—let’s call it—“aggressive secularism,” there is another secularism at play at in our culture.  This second secularism is one that practically no longer believes in the reality of God.  It does not actively work to remove God or Christian symbols from the public square, but does so rather by apathy. A society immersed in this second type of secularism may for a time continue to employ these symbols, but as the years pass, and the living connection from the Faith becomes more distant, it too forgets the Christian roots of Christmas.

Most Christians in our country, including many Catholics, have an essentially Protestant understanding of culture.  When metaphysics was discarded sometime in modernity, along with it went an awareness of the transcendental beauty and goodness of things stemming from their very being.  American Protestant religious imagination suffers from this malaise.  In such an approach to culture, if a thing is not explicitly sacred, then it is secular.  There is a lack of understanding how the Gospel penetrates and informs culture not only in explicit, but also implicit, ways.  The rise of pop “Christian music” offers a good example: beautiful music in and of itself no longer conveys the sacred, and so we must baptize music and make it explicitly “Christian.”  If it is not “Christian” in this sense, then it is “secular.”  (I often wonder if this makes the latest hit on the Christian rock charts more “Christian” than Bach’s—certainly secular?—Brandenburg concerti.)

The problem with such a cultural approach becomes evident this time of year.  As aggressively as certain secularists would remove any mention of God from Christmas, so too would some Christians remove any Christmas symbol that is not explicitly Christian.  But do we need to start shaping our gingerbread cookies into crosses instead of little men so that they are no longer “secular”?  Is the Christmas ham pagan until emblazoned with an image of the Holy Family?

In an Advent homily from many years ago, the then-Joseph Ratzinger mused:

What is Advent?  Many answers can be given.  We can grumble and say that it is nothing but a pretext for hectic activity and commercialism, prettified with sentimental clichés in which people stopped believing ages ago.  In many cases this may be true, but it is not the whole picture.

We can say the reverse, that Advent is a time when, in the midst of an unbelieving world, something of the luminous quality of this lost faith is still perceptible, like a visual echo.  Just as stars are visible long after they have become extinct, since their erstwhile light is still on its way to us, so this mystery frequently offers some warmth and hope even to those who are no longer able to believe in it.

We can also say that Advent is a time when a kindness that is otherwise almost entirely forgotten is mobilized; namely, the willingness to think of others and give them a token of kindness.  Finally we can say that Advent is a time when old customs live again, for instance in the singing of carols that takes place all over the country.  In the melodies and the words of these carols, something of the simplicity, imagination and glad strength of our forefathers makes itself heard in our age, bringing consolation and encouraging us perhaps to have another go at faith which could make people so glad in such hard times.

The substructure of much of the contemporary secular Christmas remains essentially Christian.  A spirit of wonder, a sense of hope, an inexplicable inner movement toward kindness—these things still mark our secular Christmas.  And so people who may not be sure whether or not they believe in God—no, they are sure they do not—for some reason find themselves darkening church doors this time of year.

Christians ought to treat the secular Christmas with care.  It may be one of the last vestiges of Christianity widely present in our culture.  As such, I would contend, a secular Christmas is better than no Christmas at all.

6 Responses to “Secular Christmas”: A Critique of the Critique

  1. Andrew C says:

    Great post, as a Protestant convert to Catholicism, these types of things help me get my head into the thought-life of the Catholic tradition.

  2. Mike S says:

    Multiculturalism is another form of secularism, the form employed by the public schools. Accordingly, all traditions are equally valid. But there is no way a child can sort through the nuances involved in “all traditions all valid.” They are left with everything and nothing.

    Many will respond that it is the parents’ responsibility, ultimately, to help their children sort through such issues. Of course. But easier said than done, especially when dealing with very young children who adore their teachers.

    • I think it’s important to consider perspective and positive thinking as well. If multiculturalism is approached from a perspective of “no” and “invalid” it can truly leave someone with nothing. Yet, if a multiculturalism is approached from a positive perspective, like say “it is beautiful how they…, it is a good thing that they…” I think it can instruct by pointing out the best aspects of things and inspire children to be more loving and accepting and also more aware of the ways in which their culture is beautiful and precious. In the end I think children will respond to what they “feel.” And if they associate something with a long list of “no”s and “invalid”s, it will turn them off.

  3. Jim Conniff says:

    This treatment of a subject of increasingly difficult range and depth in our time struck me as helpful not least because of the quiet fashion in which it offered its insights for all to weigh in their own lives. I’m grateful our son-in-law thought well enought of it suggest I’d find it worth reading. I did indeed. It taught without preaching, no easy accomplishment.

  4. Hi Vince,

    Thank you for this.

    I am currently living in Saudi Arabia, and I will be spending my Christmas here, in circumstances far removed from what I am familiar with. I can’t express how much it means to me to have a place like this to go to while I am in a country that doesn’t allow me to, how should I say, “Emblazon my ham with an image of the Holy family.” Hahaha. (Ham is illegal here and so are such images) Yet, I am reminded still that the Christmas spirit is as present here as anywhere, (and as important for me to fulfill as ever before). While reading this article, I quite literally smelt the pine needles in my parent’s living room. It’s those memories that are now going to allow me to share that same “spirit of wonder, sense of hope, and inexplicable inner movement toward kindness” that Christmas can inspire.

    Thanks again. And Merry Christmas!

  5. Tom Piatak says:

    An excellent post. I just came upon this blog today, and, as an alumnus of a Jesuit high school, am thoroughly enjoying it.

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