Amy Sullivan, contributing writer at Time and author of The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap, discuss her USA Today column, “Let’s put ‘Christ’-mas in its Place,” published last week. Asserting that conservatives are fighting the wrong “war on Christmas,” Amy’s article argues that what we should be doing is taking the Christ OUT of Christmas.



[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: For right-wing propagandists, Christmas is the season for giving that just keeps on giving. Year after year, conservative voices in the media construct a narrative that accuses liberal, secular, un-American forces of conspiring to wage a so-called “War on Christmas.” Then they find an anecdotal instance or two that appears to support this contention, and endlessly discuss it on Fox News, in right-leaning newspapers and on conservative websites.

This year, notable headlines that made it into the echo chamber included Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee’s use of the phrase “Holiday Tree” (which resulted, incidentally, in a hundred righteous Christians gathering to sing carols at the tree lighting, bravely risking their…  What? Was the Governor going to bring out the National Guard with tear gas and pepper spray?)

There are also online tallies of which major retailers are asking their employees to say “happy holidays,” and which are purportedly relenting to righteous indignation and reverting to “Merry Christmas.”

In the past year, we have seen the religious right and extreme pro-business interests draw ever closer to each other. So one would think that whichever greeting is good for business would be embraced by the cultural conservatives as well. After all, the fact that there was “no room at the inn” in the biblical nativity story is proof of a successful marketing plan, right?

Look, it’s easy to spoof the simpleminded faith-baiting that pops up every year at this time. But one writer suggests that, in fact, there is too much Christ in the Christmas we celebrate today.

Amy Sullivan has written a provocative article for USA Today that argues that what we should be doing is taking the Christ OUT of Christmas. Huh? You’d think that would strike a Baptist minister as being a problem!

She’s got a great point.

Amy has been a frequent guest on State of Belief Radio in the past, and I am really happy to have her joining us again, this time in the studio. Amy, welcome back to State of Belief Radio.

[AMY SULLIVAN, GUEST]: It’s good to be here.

[WG]: Explain yourself, if you will!

[AS]: Well, it may sound kind of counterintuitive to take Christ out of Christmas; but as a Christian, I’ve been struck, particularly over the last few decades, that there is not a lot of religious sentiment to the Christmas that we all celebrate. Whenever right-wingers go after commercial merchandisers for not saying “Christmas” and instead putting up “Happy Holidays” banners, I’m always wondering what version of Christianity they are trying to represent – because in my version, Christmas is not about buying reduced-price waffle makers, or even having a store clerk wish me “Merry Christmas;” when somebody says “Merry Christmas,” they generally just mean: “Have a good festive season,” not, you know, “Enjoy your celebration of Christ’s birth.”

[WG]: Yeah. I guess in one way it’s reassuring to read that distractions from the religious components of this holiday go back to Roman times – you pointed to that – and they’re not just recent commercial developments. In fact, I’d like you to talk about that because the whole history of Christmas, as I understand it, involves a celebration that had to be worked into a work schedule, and it wasn’t about all of the accoutrements that we think about – there were diversions everywhere.

[AS]: Well, certainly Christmas as we understand it now is a pretty modern, recent development. But you’re right that from the very beginning it was folded into pre-existing mid-winter celebrations, partly as a way of making it easier, and maybe more palatable, for the Roman Empire to, in its conversion to Christianity, celebrate the birth of Christ. There were pre-existing Roman celebrations every year around the New Year, and they involved gift-giving and merriment and feasts and a lot of the things that we use to celebrate the holiday season now, but also, in northern countries, it was just a way to get through the winter. There were a lot of cultures that had a lot of the elements we think of; they included use of candlelight or fires just to light up their lives in a time when darkness was prevalent. Use of greenery, long before the Christmas tree came around, people would use bows of fir of whatever sort of greenery was around to remind them that winter would eventually end. And so Christmas – which wasn’t actually celebrated until the fourth century – was kind of folded into these pre-existing traditions that a lot of cultures had. And it explains why, even today, we have, kind of, two parallel tracks of Christmas celebration. We have one that’s this more, kind of, wide-open, festive – it’s a chance to give gifts to people in your lives, it’s a chance to hold Christmas parties, to sing songs, to just be merry – even though, you know, stories about people pepper-spraying each other at Wal-Mart don’t exactly lend us the festive temperament. But we’ve got that on the one hand, and then we have ever fewer people who actually go to church on Christmas. It’s become a big almost cultural tradition to go to Christmas Eve services; but again, that’s almost more cultural then it is religious at this point, and the actual celebration of the day of Christmas as a religious holiday is limited to a minority at this point.

[WG]: Well, I’m fascinated with your proposal. You’re saying: why don’t we have a “Jesus day” to mark the birth of Christ, and leave the end of the year festivities, the gift-giving and all of that secular part of these days called Xmas. There is a real heartfelt poignancy to the way you describe what “Jesus day” would mean, and I wish you would talk about it, because I think our listeners will be fascinated.

[AS]: Sure. Well, on the one hand, I just want us to acknowledge what is basically the reality today – which is that we do have this secular, festive “Christmas season” that has almost nothing to do with religion. We sing popular songs like “We wish you a merry Christmas,” “Deck the Halls,” “Jingle Bells”… These are all about the cultural celebration of Christmas, they’re all about being with family, which is an important value, but it’s not the religious meaning of the holiday.

And so, for me, I go back to how we celebrated Christmas when I was a child. I grew up in the Baptist Church, and my Baptist grandmother would bake a birthday cake for baby Jesus, that we would stand around on Christmas day, we would sing “Happy Birthday” to baby Jesus, and it was an acknowledgement – even though we opened gifts and had a Christmas tree, we were not deprived as children – but it was an acknowledgement of why we were recognizing that day. We would go to church services on Christmas day, and there might not have been many people, but those who were there would, again, gather together, and we had a great song called “Happy Birthday Baby Jesus,” and everybody would get in the spirit by singing that, and it was a focus on the birth of Jesus – which by the time we get to Christmas morning in our recent years, people are exhausted, they have no energy left to focus on the actual day of Christmas.

[WG]: I’ve been trying to think, since I read your op-ed piece, what would this do in an interfaith nation? I mean, we’re looking, now, to deal with pluralism in responsible ways, religious pluralism. If you go the route of an Xmas, that does leave open the possibility for other religious traditions to participate in gift giving, those kinds of things, without it reflecting on any kind of commitment of Christ’s birth, or the recognition of any significance of that. Is that true?

[AS]: Absolutely, yeah. And in addition to, kind of, setting aside the actual birth of Christ as “Jesus day,” which I feel would allow those of us who have serious Christian commitments to really focus on our holiday, I think the beauty of this is that it does make the festive season opened to everybody.  You know, I’m in an interfaith marriage, and I have tried to explain to my husband over and over again that a Christmas tree has no religious significance for me. I don’t need a Christmas tree, I don’t need to have decorations hanging up, I don’t need to have Christmas cookies – even though I love Christmas cookies – that’s not Christmas. And yet, I think, still, because of the roots of Christmas, so many of these things – even Santa Claus – hold religious connotations for religious minorities who feel excluded, and who really shouldn’t, because this is a very secular cultural celebration.

[AS]: I remember that great play on Broadway “Last Night of Ballyhoo,” about a Jewish family living in Atlanta, and the great controversy in the family was that the mother always wanted to put up a Christmas tree – and the family wanted to know how that could possibly fit in with their Jewish tradition, and it was a really a serious matter about it. And she said: “I want to be a part of the gift giving,” these kinds of things; perhaps that would open up that possibility.

But let me ask you, I know you think about this a lot; your valid points also paint a picture that is really ambitious in terms of change. I mean, if we took your suggestion seriously, it would take an awful lot of changes to make it a reality. What are some of the changes we can make right now? I mean, we don’t have to wait until that dramatic moment, if it ever occurs; what are some of the things we could do right now to help people distinguish between the cultural dimensions and the spiritual dimensions?

[AS]: That’s a good question. There are two things that are going on. One is kind of a backlash to the commercialization of Christmas, which you see in movements like the Advent Conspiracy, which is people who are saying: “Enough, there’s too much focus on buying things,” and especially at a time when people don’t have as much money, when economic times are much harder – we need to take away the focus on accumulation of stuff, and allow us either to focus on the religious significance, have more of a mindfulness for Advent season – which gets lost for a lot of people – but also to focus on giving to others. So, for the Advent Conspiracy, for example, people try to challenge themselves to give less, but then spend part of what they’re saving on a cause like Living Water International, to help dig wells for people in developing countries who don’t have clean water. That type of focus may seem to people beside the point, when it comes to Christmas, but that’s because we’ve so perverted the idea of Christmas, you know, it may seem like being a Grinch to say we shouldn’t have as many presents, we should focus on helping other people; but in fact, you can argue that is more in the spirit of what Christmas is.

[WG]: Amy, I’d like to go on talking about this, but I want to save just a minute or two here, because I know how astute you are in following politics, and particularly looking at the intersection of religion and politics. So I can’t let you go without asking, keeping an eye on the language of religion that is relentlessly present in the electoral process this cycle so far: What do you see as particularly noteworthy or worrisome?

[AS]: Well, it’s actually related to what was going to be my second point of what can we do, which is: we need those religious conservatives who have so fueled the war on Christmas to pull back, and to recognize that they’re fighting the wrong fight here; and that’s what I think is, maybe not new, but very heightened in the Republican primary. Just this week we’ve seen Rick Perry come out with a new ad, talking about his faith and accusing President Obama of having a war on religion, and among other things saying that Obama, or the Left in general, has made it impossible for children to celebrate Christmas. This is from a governor who just last year was sending out “holiday” greetings to the troops. We know that Newt Gingrich made a decision, when he was Speaker of the House, to call the tree at the Capital around Christmas time a “Holiday tree” instead of a Christmas tree. So we’re seeing a level of hypocrisy that is not new, but is really heightened; and for two reasons, I think. One: you’re seeing folks like Perry and Gingrich fighting it out to the death for social conservatives in Iowa and other key states, and two, you’re seeing them – and this is really worrisome – trying to put a spotlight on their own Christianity to try to distinguish themselves from Mitt Romney and his Mormonism. And I think we’re only going to see more of this, and only more overt focus on these candidates’ faith as the months go on.

[WG]: Amy, you’ve made a great contribution to discussions related to the observance of Christmas this year, and I have not forgotten – as you’ve just demonstrated – the reason why; your astuteness in looking at politics and religion and knowing what’s ahead of us over the next twelve months, we’re probably going to be calling on you some more to help us sort through what really is religious and what’s cultural and what’s political, and where we need to go and where we don’t need to go.

Amy Sullivan is a Contributing Writer at Time magazine, and author of The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap. Her article Let’s Put Christ-mas in its Place appeared this last week in USA Today; I encourage you to look it up if you didn’t see it on the day it was published, I think you will benefit from pondering it.

Amy, thanks so much for being with us again on State of Belief Radio.

[AS]: It’s always a pleasure, thank you.

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