When I was young my family belonged to a Methodist church here in the Illinois Quad Cities. I remember at this time of year people in the church talking about how the true religious meaning of Christmas had been lost amid all the commercialism and emphasis on selling and buying things. I also remember noticing that our minister did not jump on this particular bandwagon. Although he preached sermons about how this time of year should remind us of our religious obligations to help the less fortunate and to be loving and generous he never talked about the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas.
I asked my father, who had studied for the ministry, about this and he explained that anyone who had studied the history of the church knew that the gift-giving and revelry, the tree, the mistletoe and the Yule log, WAS the true meaning of Christmas. The celebration on December 25 was a pre-existing pagan holiday that Christianity had co-opted. My father explained that among the New England Puritans from whom he was descended the more religious you were the less you celebrated Christmas. My mother’s family was Quaker and although I was not raised as a Quaker I attended a Quaker boarding high school. I discovered there that the Quakers as a religious body did not even mention Christmas as a religious holiday, although almost all the Quaker families I knew had a Christmas tree and exchanged gifts at home. (The Quakers also did not celebrate Easter, feeling that anything worth celebrating should be celebrated every day of the year, not just on one special day.)
Well, over the last 40 years or so, apparently the debate has shifted. People who call themselves conservative are now outraged, not that the true Christian meaning of Christmas has been lost amid the commercialism and marketing, but that store employees are being told by their bosses to say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” and, at least in Australia, some store Santas are being told to say ‘Ha-ha-ha’ rather than ‘Ho-ho-ho’. Conservative talk-show hosts and bloggers are outraged that stores are more concerned about not offending their non-Christian customers than they are in preserving Christmas traditions of saying “Merry Christmas” and “Ho-ho-ho” – traditions that extend all the way back 100 years or so. See examples here and here.
I guess I liked it better when people were complaining that Christmas had become too commercial. The idea that store employees and store Santas have become the high priests of our Christmas experience and the debate is only over how well or badly the stores are fulfilling their obligations to our Christmas is just absurd.