For the modernist, Christmas must be stripped of its Christian meaning, separated from the religious holy day it is and always has been. It is not breaking news that traditional Christmas to secularists is the epitome of religious exclusion and consequently considered intolerant. Therefore, in the hands of secularists and modernists, it has undergone severe reconstruction to be made into a more inclusive, multi-cultural, non-religious substitute that strains to just barely resemble the known and cherished Christmas holiday. This is just a front, like a façade erected on the face of a once-beautiful building. Modern Christmas (if it can still be called Christmas) is suffused with secularism – or perhaps suffocated is a better word. It resembles nothing of what it ought to be or once was in the distant past, and each year, it seems to grow worse.
Much of the traditional Christmas decor and aura has been kept but renamed and recycled to be more inclusive. For instance, Christmas trees are now known as “holiday trees.” “Merry Christmas” has been replaced with either “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings,” and the very word “Christmas” has been dropped from cards, news, radio, company parties, and so on.
One of the most blatant acts of de-Christianization on Christmas actually occurred some time ago, when commercialization and consumerism ravaged our country. Since then, even many modernists have denounced these worldly excesses, indicating that the issue is much deeper; it is a spiritual matter. The commercialization, secularization, and re-interpretation of Christmas can never be a suitable replacement for the real Christmas, no matter how much of the exterior display and ambience one keeps.
As Catholics, we are pitted in an awkward spot of the Christmas debate. The other day I was watching a video with Ben Shapiro on his views on Christmas, which clarified this point. Conservative non-Christians, such as Jewish conservative powerhouse Shapiro, criticize the liberal modernist attempt to quash Christmas, saying that the phrase “Merry Christmas” is not offensive and that America should go back to celebrating a non-politically correct Christmas. But therein lies the basic issue: Christmas is not political. From a merely politically conservative perspective, I can greatly appreciate our non-Christian conservatives’ push against the left’s attempt to tear down Christmas. Their defense is admirable. Yet their argument that Christmas is a national holiday as well as a religious one, while easy to fall for, especially when resisting the modernists’ reconstruction efforts, is one for Catholics to resist.
A national holiday can truly be celebrated by any citizen because it is secular in nature and meaning. Thanksgiving, for example, has no deeper spiritual or religious connotations (though there may be historically Catholic elements associated with it) and is not celebrated universally. Christmas, however, is religious in nature, has historically been treated as such, and is a universally celebrated feast (by Christians). It can be truly celebrated only by those who understand and love it. Anyone can celebrate the external practices and customs associated with Christmas, but these lend nothing to the feast without the proper spiritual disposition of the person or the public act of liturgy to celebrate the occasion.
Christmas is strictly a religious holiday. What is at hand here in this battle for Christmas (and yes, “battle” is the appropriate word) is the meaning of Christmas – what it signifies and represents. For the secularist (which, unfortunately, does include many Catholics), love, kindness, cheer, and joy become seasonal clichés: they lack context and are superficial.
The question as it stands, then, is this: what is the significance of Christmas according to Christianity?
For Christians, Christmas (literally meaning Mass of Christ) is fundamentally the celebration of Christ’s birth. Yet there is a deeper meaning to the holy day that even many Christians are not fully aware of. There is a theological significance unknown and untouched by the Protestant, much less by the non-Christian. And perhaps it is not simply just the understanding of what Christmas is, but rather the attitude toward what it is. The non-Christian may appreciate the spirit of Christmas – kindness, humility, joy – yet he cannot possibly grasp the spiritual richness and significance of this holy day called Christmas. He does not understand the “why” – only the “what.”
Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, in his sermon on Christmas day called “Religious Joy,” tells of two lessons that can be learned from Christ’s birth. The first of these is lowliness, in which he writes: “Christ altogether dishonored what the world esteems, when He took on Himself a rank and station which the world despises.” The second lesson is to have joy. Our author reminds us that we must have joy during the Christmas season, and for the Christian, joy is not the same as happiness; there is a distinction to be made between the two words – “[t]o be cheerful and joyful; and, again, to be so in the midst of those obscure and ordinary circumstances of life which the world passes over and thinks scorn of” (Newman). Happiness is found in having our way, while joy is found in having Christ’s way. The secular world wants us to pursuit happiness in life; Christ wishes us to find joy in life, even in the most mundane aspects of our vocation and duties. Hence, we as true Christians can find more joy in Christmas, in Christ’s birth, than any non-Christian ever could.
For the true Christian, Christmas is not simply an exterior festivity derived from an all-encompassing spirit of goodness. Rather, Christmas has a profound and real religious and spiritual significance only his like can fully comprehend. The true spirit of Christmas finds itself kneeling by the crib of the Christ child, God incarnate, with serene joy in His coming to us, in Him Who will one day pay the price of His passion and death for our eternal salvation. The observance of this holy day is done justice by the Christian who delights in finding joy in the spirit of humility, of poverty, and of lowliness. No person can truly celebrate or appreciate this holy day like the Christian.
With secularism, the spirit of Christmas disappears, becoming a banal, rubbish “holiday.” This isn’t to say secular holidays are bad, for there are national holidays that are good, like Thanksgiving, Armistice Day, and Memorial Day. But they are not holy days and cannot be elevated to the rank of the likes of Christmas and Easter. And to reduce Christian feast days like Christmas to the same level as secular holidays is an injustice to Christ the King. It is a sign of an increasing separation between God and man, and Christmas in the secular form that our society knows will disintegrate without the ever living spirit of Christ to keep it alive in the hearts and souls of Christians. When Christ is pushed out of Christmas, He is pushed out of men’s hearts, and they will not be able to know what joy is.
Christmas is a Christian holiday, and neither the secular leftist culture nor the well meaning conservative allies of Christmas as a national holiday can fully understand the significance of this day. We must continue to live the spirit of Christmas ourselves in the way we ought, with joy in our own homes and by publicly displaying our holy day to the world, sharing it with others so they too might recognize the true joy that Christmas brings.