JESUS, SANTA & CAESAR: Christian vs. Capitalist Christmas

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.

A Tale of Two Christmases

There are two holidays that are celebrated on December 25.

One is the twelve-day Christian feast of the Nativity, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. It begins with a vigil on the evening of December 24 and runs through until the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. It is a time of feasting and merry-making, singing carols and visiting family and friends. As a sign of God’s generously giving himself to the world in Jesus, gifts are exchanged, and the poor are served by the more fortunate. This twelve-day holiday is preceded by four weeks of introspection in anticipation of the arrival of Christ known as Advent.

The other celebration on December 25 is a consumer-capitalist holiday which, although it is dipped in the flavor of the religious holiday, has only its aroma. This secular “holy” day makes some reference to generosity, but mostly in the guise of buying and giving consumer goods. It, too, has habits of feasting and merry-making. It generally begins after Halloween and ends abruptly on December 25.

Many people find it confusing that both holidays are called “Christmas.”

I respect those celebrating the capitalist holiday, though I understand it to be completely different from the Christian one. Not worse, just different.

The capitalist celebration of Christmas has something to recommend it. Secular people with no connection to religious tradition or community have the opportunity to spend time reflecting on the season’s themes: light in the darkness, generosity, new life, birth, the blessings of children and family, magic. Many donate time and money to charitable organizations.

More often than not, individuals unconsciously act out family traditions (decorating the home, bringing an evergreen tree into the house, putting presents underneath the tree, making certain recipes) without thinking too much about it. Is this a religious observance? Tradition? Why are we doing this?

A hero of this consumerist holiday is Santa Claus, the jolly white-bearded man who lives hidden in an enchanted workshop at the north pole and magically distributes gifts to children by coming down the chimney while they sleep. He is a symbol of the capitalist Christmas, embodying the generous, gift-giving spirit of the holiday.

The symbol of the Christian holiday is a little newborn baby.

The two different stories of Jesus Christ’s birth found in the New Testament each act as an overture to the gospel that follows. One represents Jesus as the new Moses, fulfilling prophecies of a new divinely appointed leader (Matthew), and the other that a leader has come for the lowest, most outcast of the world, Jewish and non-Jewish (Luke).

These birth stories are theological reflections, meant to convey who and what Jesus is and was to the communities out of which these gospels were formed. Reading and reflecting on these two narratives—the sheep herders, the animal stall, the star, the magi and the wicked ruler—and understanding what is being conveyed can be a meaningful exercise once a year.

The Christian church adopted a pagan holiday to celebrate the birth of Christ as it developed its liturgical year. The winter solstice (broadly, Saturnalia in southern Europe, Yule in northern Europe) celebrates the return or rebirth of the sun in the darkest time of the year. This fit the Christian understanding of the person of Jesus Christ – his birth and life were like divine light dawning on a darkened world.

Christians who get upset by the “commercialization” of Christmas may be helped to know that the capitalist Christmas is a different celebration from their own and is entirely commercial—commercialism is, in fact, its raison d’être.

Christians who want to “put the Christ back into Christmas” have my sympathy. But rather than judging others (wait, didn’t somebody wise say something about judging others?) for not celebrating the Christian holiday, it may be more helpful to practice one’s own holiday with integrity and spirit. Before you remove the speck in your neighbor’s eye, maybe it’s time to pluck out the Yule log stuck in your own!

Those who celebrate the birth of Christ in December may want to ask ourselves what is the best way to do so.

  • Is it by trampling people to death at the shopping mall?
  • Stressing out about buying (or making) presents for loved ones?
  • Becoming apoplectic about travelling, decorating, baking, entertaining, shopping?
  • Getting snotty about other people celebrating holidays at this time of year? (and yes, “happy holidays,” because there are a number of festivals being celebrated this time of year—Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, winter solstice, Yule, New Year’s, among others, as well as both Christmases).

In what ways is the Christian observance of Christmas exactly similar to the capitalist observance? In what ways is the Christian celebration different from the commercial one? In what ways are practicing Christians smooshing the two together?

I don’t celebrate the capitalist holiday. I haven’t for years. For a while, my only celebration at this time of year was New Year’s. But now I see the wisdom of observing a threefold religious occasion—Advent, Nativity, Epiphany.

I try not to use “Christmas” language, because I like to distinguish what I’m doing from the capitalist holiday. Rather than reclaim “Christmas,” I call what I do by other names, even as the capitalists begin to relinquish “Christmas” in favor of “holiday” or “winter.”

I invite practicing Christians to consider withdrawing their support for the capitalist version of Christmas and finding ways of celebrating the birth of Christ with integrity and spirit.

  • Remember that Advent is a time for reflection, not crazy making. What about taking up a spiritual discipline of meditation or vigil keeping or prayer or journaling? What are some of your most significant hopes? What calls forth your forbearance and patience?
  • Remember that Christmas (the Feast of the Nativity) is a twelve-day celebration. Merry-making, visits, singing, gift-giving, baking… why not spread it out over the twelve days? Why not choose an activity to do with the members of your household, friends, and family for each of the twelve days? What about serving the poor and disenfranchised in some way?
  • Remember that Epiphany is also a holiday. Sometimes called Twelfth Night, some traditions include “king’s cake,” a cake with a coin baked into it, and progressive dinners.

Rather than grumbling that the cashier at the store didn’t say “Merry Christmas” while you handed over fistfuls of money, why not get out of the stores altogether?

Put the Christ back into Christmas by putting your cash and your credit card back in your wallet.

Spend less time at the mall and more time at church, with your loved ones, and with the poor and oppressed people in your community.

There are lots of resources for having a more simple, meaningful and joy-filled Christmas. Visit  Buy Nothing Christmas and the Advent Conspiracy for inspiration and resources. There is so much out there!

(And by the way, you don’t have to be Christian to want to change the way you experience the December holiday season. Many of us unconsciously go through the motions, perpetuating family customs and traditions we haven’t really paid much attention to and may even find joyless or meaningless. You, too, may want to withdraw your support from the capitalist Christmas and find some more authentic ways of celebrating the themes of the season).

Many Christians are having a hard time adjusting to living in a post-Christendom world. Christianity is no longer the established religion, seamlessly woven together with civic society and political governance. That sucks for some Christians and they get all crankypants about not being the definitive, dominant culture. That’s how I experience the resentful complaining of a so-called “war on Christmas.”

As much as it is a loss, the fall of Christendom is also an opportunity for followers of Jesus to bear authentic witness to his life and teachings. Cultural accretions that have nothing to do with—or are antithetical to—his gospel message can be stripped away.

It’s hard when in-groups get pushed to the margin. It requires humility and grace. But the margin is a good place to do religion, especially if your religion actually teaches humility and grace.

In fact, that reminds me of a story. A young unwed woman, under the rule of an empire that taxed and oppressed ordinary people, gives birth to a baby in a squalid barn, heralded only by homeless ruffians… and angels…