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The other day, I spotted an opinion post on Christianity Today that made me laugh: “All I Want for Christmas Is a Song that Mentions Jesus.” This complaint really brings home just how little about this holiday is actually Jesus-centered.

Taking Jesus out of it doesn’t affect much at all. But take all the holiday stuff out of the religious aspects of Christmas, and all you’ve got are extended sermons. I can understand why Christians try so hard to claim a monopoly over Christmas: nothing about the holiday really speaks to Christianity. No, Christmas speaks to something much, much better.

Walking in a (not-so-)winter wonderland

I spent my early childhood in Hawaii with my mom and sister. We lived only a block away from Waikiki Beach. As you can probably imagine, Christmas in paradise didn’t look much like a Currier and Ives print.

Central-Park Winter. The skating pond, lithograph by Currier and Ives, 1862. (Public domain.)

Where I lived, it never snowed. Even Diamond Head’s dazzling sparkles were usually derived from calcite crystals, not ice. Heck, I don’t even remember ever being very cold. The whole time I lived in Hawaii, I remember donning a sweater exactly once. The occasion: an evening holiday party on a yacht. I remember the sweater precisely because it was such a novelty to wear one. (According to this tracking site, the temperature hit a peak of 83F, then dropped to a low of 73F on the evening of December 24, 1976).

We still had all the Christmas-y imagery, of course. It just looked drastically out of context.

As a result, almost all of my family Christmas photos show me in halter tops, shorts, and bare feet.

little cas as a kid with her christmas presents
Dis me.

My family was poor on a scale that most people couldn’t even imagine unless they’ve been there. Still, my mom did her best to give her two young daughters happy Christmas memories. We always enjoyed the whole nine yards: trees, decorations, presents, visits with Santa, gingerbread houses, lights, parades, holiday specials on TV, and all the rest.

Notice anything missing from that list?

Because my grandparents sure did!

Record scratch: It’s peanut butter Jesus time!

My little family went to live with my extremely Catholic grandparents in Baltimore when I was eight. They immediately set about correcting my worldview.

As you might expect, they injected a lot of Jesus stuff into my already alarmingly-pagan conceptualization of Christmas: mangers and babies, angels and shepherds, bright stars and hymns. Oh yes, so many hymns, along with tons of church visits for all sorts of arcane, mystic reasons. It was utterly fascinating to me, though probably not for the reasons they wanted.

I internalized all of my grandparents’ beliefs while experiencing snow and cold weather during the holidays for the first time. At last, all those winter-wonderland motifs of Christmas made sense to me! In so many ways, that entire year in Baltimore was such a blur of new experiences (like visiting Shocket’s on “the Avenue” and filing around its narrow aisles one at a time in an endless procession of pilgrims to shop for ornaments and those funky resin Nativity figurines Catholics loved back then).

All this time, though, all the Jesus stuff felt tacked onto the holiday celebrations. It didn’t fit quite right. Something was amiss. Something felt off.

When I got older, I learned why.

The reason for the Christmas season isn’t Jesus

Every culture seems to have a holiday like Christmas that takes place right around the winter solstice. Right when the darkness reaches its greatest share of our days, people everywhere just seem to hit a universal point where they take a deep breath, realize the worst is over and warmth is coming back soon, and decide to blow off some steam together.

In China, the Dōngzhì Festival has been celebrated for thousands of years. During this festival, people gather with their families, eat glutinous rice balls, and perform rituals honoring their ancestors.

In Iran, people have celebrated Shabe Yalda for many years as well. On the shortest day of the year, people gather in the homes of their older family members, read poetry together, eat and drink holiday foods together, and eat fruit — especially watermelon and pomegranates.

In Japan, the winter solstice festival is called Toji. During Toji, people enjoy soaking in hot springs or baths scented with yuzu (a delicious citrus fruit), walking through bonfires, praying to purify and cleanse their souls, and of course, eating special holiday foods!

Long before anybody even imagined Christianity, Europeans celebrated the solstice in their own ways, often mixing their favorite celebrations with explicitly Christian ones once they were compelled to adopt the new religion.

I can see why a certain kind of authoritarian Christian feels really challenged by the popularity of secular Christmas celebrations — and desperately seeks to regain control over it.

All he wants for Christmas—really?

Cue this plaintive complaint from the Christianity Today post author, Daniel Silliman, who laments the secularity of Christmas music in this current year:

Jesus is the reason for the season. But he doesn’t show up much in the top Christmas songs played on Spotify.

According to October 2021 data from the streaming service collected by Every Noise, the most-played Christmas song around the world is Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas,” followed by Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” and Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me.” [. . .]

Globally, the most popular Christmas song to mention Jesus is Boney M.’s “Mary’s Boy Child/Oh My Lord,” which comes in at No. 71. It is followed by Nina Nesbitt singing “O Holy Night” at 79 and Josh Groban and Faith Hill performing “The First Nöel” at 90.

Oh noes! People aren’t listening to Jesus-all-the-time worship music at Christmas! Left to our own devices, we’d rather hear Mariah Carey or George Michael! OH, THE HUMANITY!

The post doesn’t go much further than that. Silliman mentions a few Christian-centric holiday songs that are popular around the world. He offers up a map graphic. Then, his post just sputters to an end.

But he’s already revealed way too much about why he felt moved to make this complaint in the first place.

Operating from incorrect premises about Christmas

The main problem with Daniel Silliman’s post is that it begins with an objectively false premise. In truth, Jesus is not the “reason for the season.” He never was.

Christians injected Jesus-ification into existing solstice celebrations when they didn’t even really know when (much less if) their savior had been born in the first place. Then, they tried to claim they invented the whole idea of Christmas. And now, many Christians mistakenly think they completely own the entire holiday.

I’ve even personally encountered especially-controlling Christians trying to tell non-Christians that we’re not allowed to celebrate Christmas unless we buy into their mythology.

Talk about lacking the Christmas spirit!

Complaints about the secular nature of Christmas are just weapon-grade copium from those Christians who are extremely upset about losing cultural dominance.

This guy’s real problem with people’s favorite Christmas songs

Left to our own devices, people celebrate Christmas in ways that don’t require Daniel Silliman’s religious oversight or approval at all. All people really want for Christmas is, well, Christmas itself. And that upsets this guy!

Every year, he gets reminded all over again that Christians don’t own something he used to feel belonged to his tribe. In fact, he even specifically points out Christmas songs’ popularity in other countries as evidence of Christians’ cultural dominance:

The presence of Jesus in popular Christmas music varies widely by country, however, revealing differences in musical taste, holiday traditions, and the spread of Christianity by missionaries, militaries, markets, and immigration.

Daniel Silliman wants more Jesus-flavored Christmas songs because they make him feel like he still owns Christmas.

Ultimately, though, if people take Jesus entirely out of the holiday then it still looks recognizably like Christmas. But if we take all the non-Jesus-y stuff out of it, then all we’re left with is a fancier church service that lasts way longer than usual.

Silliman is certainly welcome to that kind of holiday. However, it’s sad that yearns so much for dominance. That yearning has obscured the real reason for the season.

The real reason for the Christmas season

To borrow the funny saying, the actual reason for the Christmas season is axial tilt, a regular occurrence that inspires our very human desire to share regularly-timed annual celebrations with each other.

via

So for me, Christmas will always represent part of what makes us human: that urge to celebrate that we all got through the worst of winter and can now look forward to spring arriving soon.

However you celebrate those things (and if you do at all), do so in whatever ways feel most meaningful to you and yours.

Whatever the results look like, you will be partaking in a custom that is as old as humanity itself, one that unites and binds us closer, one that doesn’t care about differences in our beliefs but instead looks to our hearts.

And isn’t that the best message we could hope to find in Christmas?

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...