Nothing brings out the Christian love quite like Christmas. It’s that wonderful time of year when Christians fight over the proper-and-correct way to celebrate their favorite holiday. Gaudy entertainment meets sanctimonious simplified displays meets complete secularization in a Battle Royale to the finish! Come watch the spectacle! Today, Lord Snow Presides over a whole different kind of tradition beloved by way too many Christians.
ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?
On one side of the ring, we behold the Christmas Entertainers.
Gang, these folks know how to par-TAY! They hold wild spectacles that even non-member families and invited visitors can enjoy.
Now, these entertainers can be Catholic or Protestant, mainline or rowdy. When I lived in Kansas, the tiny town I lived in had a surprisingly-large Catholic Church. Every Christmas, that church hosted a huge Christmas choral concert. It was almost eerie in its beauty, grace, and skill. To me–then about five years out of Christianity and not yet pagan–it felt like the distillation of the religion’s more ritualistic and sublime side.
Nor can I forget the huge Mormon temple near Baltimore (I think Kensington?) that hosted a similar huge holiday concert. I can’t remember exactly who sang the year I attended around 1990, when I was a newlywed true-blue Pentecostal–the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, maybe. But I do remember their incredible skill. It’s been many years, but I also remember the temple itself, which my aunt and grandma called the Disney Castle for its appearance, kitted out in lights like a fairytale wonderland.
I left that temple feeling like yes, it’d sure been an incredible experience. But I also felt sad. It felt like the folks at that temple had missed what I felt was a very important point about Christmas.
When it comes to that feeling, not much has changed in Christian-Land.
Pageantry = Christmas?
Over at Religion News, we see a front-page story about Middle Collegiate Church. Their televised special featured all kinds of famous performers, gospel choirs, and children. These performers sang various gospel songs and carols, all done in service to their understanding of the Baby Jesus birth narrative.
It sounded like quite a blowout. They heard people like pageantry, so they pageanted some pageants in the pageantry for the pageant. I’ve no doubt in the world that if they’d been allowed by the fire code to shove some fireworks in there to cap off the show, they would have.
Of course, it’s not all fun and games. At some point in this pageantry, the pastor of this church stood up front to deliver what Religion News tells us was “a powerful sermon.” Hopefully, the visitors will enjoy the other stuff enough to sit through it.
For a lot of those folks, these pageants and concerts represent Christmas itself. More than that, though, they represent Christian dominance of the holiday. Some of the Christians who like those displays get downright riled up over the idea of people celebrating Christmas in other ways, or foregoing Christmas-specific pageantry altogether.
Those Dadgum Seeker-Sensitives.
In the other corner we find the angry Christmas purists.
Not for them, the frilly spectacles and pageants. In fact, they view such celebrations as suspicious–maybe even harmful to their souls and those of others. Give them a nice sermon, maybe a few flourishes, but keep the razzmatazz far away. Such spectacles, they are certain, dilute the real meaning of Christmas as well as produce a dangerous liking for pure entertainment in the flocks.
Often these Christians take pains (and a lot of what appear to be out-of-context Bible verses) to hammer home the connection they see between pageantry and paganism.
One Reformed Christian wrote a whole long paper about that topic. James Hughes asks, on behalf of pageant-hating Christians, “What’s wrong with a Christmas pageant?” and then answers–at length. By page 124, he’s landed on these celebrations linking to Christmas pageants to the god “Zammuz,” which is news to me (I think he’s messed up the spelling of Tammuz, who was associated with shepherds). Either way, Christmas’ links to pagan celebrations isn’t surprising, given how syncretistic Christianity itself can be.
Famed Christian singer Keith Green, who died when I was a child, wrote about this topic as well. His suggestion for getting back to the real meaning of Christmas was to volunteer as a family to serve and help the poor and lonely in the local community.
The Fight for the Soul of Christianity.
This Christian bickering is very entertaining. Nothing illustrates how non-divine Christianity is like the behavior of its most devoted followers! Indeed, Christians’ striking disunity accidentally reveals one of the most flagrantly unfulfilled prayers Jesus ever made in the Gospels, John 17:20-23:
I am not asking on behalf of them alone, but also on behalf of those who will believe in Me through their message, that all of them may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I am in You. May they also be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. I have given them the glory You gave Me, so that they may be one as We are one—I in them and You in Me—that they may be perfectly united, so that the world may know that You sent Me and have loved them just as You have loved Me.
And this divide over how to properly celebrate Christmas speaks to that already-striking disunity in a particularly striking way. Here, we see Christians sniffing over how decidedly inferior they view entertainment-based Christianity compared to the TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ they themselves practice. To them, their preferred flavor of the religion more accurately captures how they think Jesus wanted his followers to practice devotions to him. That makes other flavors inferior and possibly heretical.
Of course, their ideological foes would say much the same thing about them.
Stuff Christians Like: Gatekeeping Labels.
We’ll be talking next week about this topic in the detail it deserves. For now, I’ll just note that what really is at stake for the various Christians squabbling about Christmas pageants.
See, they want nothing less than the right to decide for others what the true and correct and proper definition of Christmas shall be. They don’t want to just set the tone for their own religious bunkmates. They want their definition to apply to everybody. When they talk about how saaaaad they are, that’s what they mean. Like take this wringing-of-hands from Adam Eitel, who at the time (2003) described himself as a 22-year-old aspiring minister:
“The distinction between the church and pop culture is so skewed,” said Adam Eitel, a 22-year-old Baylor University senior who plans to go into Presbyterian ministry. “It seems as though people no longer come to church to worship. We view it as another means of entertainment.”
Dude ended up doing very well for himself in terms of Christianity. He’s an Assistant Professor over at Yale Divinity School now, focusing on ethics and morality. And from the looks of his resume, he still tries to convince other Christians that they’re Christian-ing all wrong. At least he eventually elevated his efforts past the usual War on Christmas drivel. Most of his religious bunkmates haven’t gotten that far.
The Reason for the Season.
When Christians talk about the real meaning of Christmas, what they really mean is the meaning they think Christmas has, which is to say the meaning they want everyone else to have in mind along with them.
Very similar reasoning operates in other Christian squabbles:
- What does it mean to be Christian?
- … to be male or female and in a romantic relationship (or not)?
- … to be a Christian community–locally and globally and universally?
- What rules will that community observe or discard or consider optional?
- Who gets to set the tone for the rest in all these matters?
- What shall be done with those who reject those rules or change them?
Long gone are the days when one group could simply stomp on the rest to enforce somewhat-uniform beliefs and doctrines.
The Battle Royale.
The question of how to properly and correctly celebrate Christmas derives from those other squabbles. It’s not about Christmas itself, any more than Mike Huckabee’s crusade against rainbow Doritos were about what color the snack manufacturer dyed their corn chips. It’s really more about who controls what and who accepts (or becomes compelled to accept) control in turn.
As Christians grow more and more fragmented, and as their membership continues to decline (even if and as their political reach outpaces their membership), we can expect their infighting to grow worse. A lot is at stake, and they know it.
That’s why their overreach has only gotten worse and more audacious as they slowly realize just how irrelevant they’re becoming to Americans’ everyday lives. Now they even shake their fingers at atheists who celebrate Christmas! And boy howdy, it makes them mad when atheists don’t GAFF what they think and celebrate anyway! This, like many other questions of practice and belief, ain’t up to them, but gosh, a whole bunch of ’em would sure like it if we’d kindly pretend it was.
I wonder if any of them will eventually wonder why it’s so hard to convince anyone else in their tribe that they’re wrong about anything. Lemme tell you: that was a problem for me!
So today, Lord Snow Presides over an increasingly-acrimonious bit of Christian bickering about one of their favorite holidays–and what it might mean for Christians when the rest of us stop caring about what they think about the matter.
NEXT UP: Tomorrow, look for a Super Special! Then, on Thursday… Movie review? MOVIE REVIEW?? Yes! Movie review! See you next time!
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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. I’ve started us off on a topic, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. Pet pictures especially welcome! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.