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.