Religion is popularly thought of in terms of faith—personal faith. One’s beliefs, values and practices may be nurtured in houses of worship, but are largely personally held and seen to be private.
Yet religion is also a cultural phenomenon, a discourse of stories and signs that are represented in art, re-presented and acted out in performance (including worship), and expressed in many other forms of culture.
Anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously defined religion as
… a system of symbols which establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in [individuals] by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
Myths, legends, and rituals help form personal and community identities, embody communal life, and frame a worldview. They help give life meaning.
It may surprise some to hear consumer capitalism defined as a religion. And stranger still to think of Christmas as a holiday of this religion.
The capitalist festival of Christmas is “religious” in the sense that consumer capitalism creates and maintains a system of symbols that motivates people to shop for consumer goods and creates an all-encompassing atmosphere during “the holidays” of cheer, generosity, and togetherness.
Symbols of this religion—including Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, candy canes, snow men—are ubiquitous. Its symbols (unlike a nativity scene or crèche) are not considered controversial or inappropriate for public display.
Indeed, the culture at large compels participation in this civic religion. Tree-lighting ceremonies are observed at city hall, public spaces are festooned with lights, and the media are full of “holiday” stories—Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, and more–and “holiday” music–songs about bells and snow.
Civic, secular and cultural spaces are used for this ever-present festival precisely because it is a “religious” festival promoted by the dominant “religious culture,” that is to say the capitalist economic order. This commercial carnival called Christmas is not Christian, nor is it at all the same festival as the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ.
In European and Euro-American cultures, the winter solstice was a time of feasting and carousing. For these agrarian cultures, it was a slow time of year and the darkness needed to be fended off in some way. Festivals involving drinking ale and mead that had had time to age, feasting on foods that would spoil by midwinter, and assuaging anxieties about the darkness evolved.
Here in New England, Christmas was banned or not celebrated not because the Puritans were anti-Pagan, but rather because it was a time of drinking wassail, carousing, and (most importantly) of working people demanding favors of the well-to-do. Revelers going door to door and asking for treats (“bring us a figgy pudding! we won’t go until we get some!”) and threatening mischief if not satisfied was a common practice.
Stephen Nissenbaum, in his fascinating book The Battle for Christmas, details how this celebration was transformed by the US ruling class into a domestic holiday in which children asked for or received favors from adults. The action went indoors and the holiday was literally domesticated.
Traditions involving Saint Nicholas were expanded in the late nineteenth century with the popularity of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore, a wealthy promoter of the domestication of Christmas. The story that Santa Claus descended the chimney to give good little children toys and presents became a central element in the Christmas mythos.
The contemporary Santa, with his red suit trimmed with white fur, was popularized tremendously by the Coca-Cola Company in the 1930s.
Santa Claus comes to town on Thanksgiving Day, purportedly, in a nationally televised parade of other commercial icons (the Smurfs, Kermit the Frog, Sponge Bob, Scooby Doo) sponsored by a department store.
Santa Claus may be visited this time of year—where else?—in the local shopping mall or department store. Children queue for hours to commune with him—and to ask for things.
Stating the obvious—that commercial culture and forces of consumer capitalism created and sustain a quasi-religious festival—is not to condemn it. It is, rather, to clarify what is and what is not happening in North American culture from US Thanksgiving to Superbowl Sunday.
The birth of Jesus Christ is not being celebrated.
That is another festival practiced by another religion. It, too, is called “Christmas” and that has caused an unfortunate confusion.
From its agrarian beginnings in material culture, through its domestication and reinvention in the late nineteenth century, through its growing prominence in twentieth century capitalism, this Christmas has only incidentally ever been about Jesus. It’s been about money, material goods, and commercial trade all along.
I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Jesus was never really the reason for the season.
The Roman Empire had a festival celebrating the birth of a savior, a man worshipped as a god who brought salvation to the people. Weeks long reveling took place in his honor, celebrating not only the new year, but a new era that began with his birth, an era of peace and prosperity. Civic sponsored parades, philanthropic giving, and lavish feasts celebrated the birth of this prince of peace.
It was Caesar that was being celebrated as savior and lord.
The Christian Church in the third century began to associate the birth of Jesus with this time of year.
From the very beginning–indeed from the very story of Christ’s birth found in the gospel of Luke–followers of Jesus have been subverting political culture by speaking of Jesus in Roman and Jewish political terms (messiah, savior, lord, kingdom, gospel, church [“assembly”]—these are all from the Hebrew and Greco-Roman political and civic lexicon).
By saying that Jesus was the only ruler, they were saying that Caesar had no power over them. The affirmation “Jesus is Lord” is subversive. If Jesus is lord, then the emperor is not.
By pledging allegiance to the kingdom of God, they were stating their opposition to and noncompliance with the kingdom of Caesar.
A different kingdom and indeed a different kind of kingdom altogether was lurking in the shadow of the world’s kingdoms, small and unnoticed and yet, like a mustard seed, growing. A different social order was being lived out in the margins–a society based in forgiveness, jubilee, compassion, nonviolent resistance, sharing and love.
When the church came to power, the festival was baptized as Christian. Christianizing the winter solstice, the church hoped to transform culture. The worship of Jesus was to replace the worship of the emperor. With the shift in power, what had been acts and rhetoric of subversion began to more closely resemble the discourse and apparatus of imperial rule.
In the era of Christendom that followed Constantine, the church was in the position to create culture. Its feasts and fasts, heroes and heroines, liturgies and ceremonies, became continuous with civic culture, political governance, and—let’s face it—empire.
Now that that era is gone… What? Oh. Yes. Sorry. That era is over. It has ended. So sorry. Bummer, eh? Welcome to post-Christendom.
Now that that era is gone, it seems to me that followers of Jesus have a choice to make.
Jesus or Caesar?
Jesus or Santa?
Will we pattern our days after the current empire with its gods and mythos and festivals? Will we participate in the feasts and holidays of the dominant religion—capitalism—or will we not comply?
Which kingdom has our allegiance?
The Kingdom of God as described in the gospels is in opposition to the kingdom of Caesar. The imperial savior brought peace through domination, military might, and the fear of violence. The peasant savior from the margins of the empire brought peace through cooperation, soul force, and trust.
How is it that US Christians still believe that claiming the corporate-sponsored frenzy is or ought to be a Christian holiday? That Christmas is a different holiday. Let those who find meaning in it celebrate it. And, you know, really. Quit bugging them that they are not celebrating what you celebrate.
What you celebrate is different.
And maybe it’s time to differentiate the Christian Christmas from the capitalist Christmas.