The Secularization of Christmas Isn’t Just Okay — It’s Great

By Wendy Thomas Russell | December 2, 2013 | 16 comments

Good Tidings Great JoyStart your engines, folks, the War on Christmas is here again!

This time it’s Sarah Palin leading the charge with her new book: Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. Released a couple of weeks ago, the book is apparently — brace yourself, this is shocking — really, really awful. The Daily Beast’s Candida Moss actually read the damn thing (bless her heart) and came away with a whole lot of nothing.

“Ultimately,” Moss wrote in her review, “this is a Christmas of no-bake cookies, half-baked theology, and pre-packaged Christmas stories.”

By way of the “half-baked theology,” Moss said, the former Vice Presidential candidate at one point talks about about placing a menorah on her Christmas table every year to “acknowledge Christianity’s Judeo-Christian roots.” That bit made me laugh out loud. God, she’s an idiot.

But back to the War on Christmas.

By my read, the War on Christmas has two main tentacles, or assumptions:

1. Christmas is becoming a secular holiday.

2. People are forcing it into secularization by killing off all mention of Christ.

Okay, first of all, Number 1? Flat-out true.

Christmas is becoming a secular holiday. Not for everyone, of course, but for some. Maybe even for many. Definitely for me. I love Christmas — the trees, the lights, the gift giving, all of it — but I took the Christ out of my Christmas a long time ago. Other than telling my daughter about the wonderful little legend of Jesus’ birth in a stable in Bethlehem, my version of Christmas is a season of entirely nonreligious traditions and celebrations. Sure, those celebrations are rooted in my Christian heritage, and I wholly acknowledge that. (The same way Palin acknowledges her religion’s Jewish roots with a menorah.) But do I attach some deeper personal meaning to Christmas? No, not at all. You could say I am a secular Christian in the same way some of my friends are secular Jews or secular Hindus. They’ll probably always celebrate Hanukkah and Diwali, but does that mean they actually believe in God, Brahman, or that dude with the elephant head? Uh, no.

So, yes, Fox News, I’ll give you No. 1. But you lose me at No. 2.

Apart from some civic-minded folks trying to make their public spaces more inclusive of other cultures by removing nativity scenes and the like, no one is forcing Christmas into secularization. Yes, mentions of Christ are dropping like flies. But that’s not because of injuries sustained in any damn war. It’s because more and more Americans — more than 20 percent of us — are nonreligious. Christmas is becoming more secular because we are becoming more secular.

The holiday isn’t dying. It’s evolving.

And isn’t that a good thing? Would Fox News rather we secularists stopped celebrating Christmas altogether? I wonder how Sarah Palin would feel if a quarter of her family and friends stopped showing up to her annual Christmas party? I wonder how all those corporations and business owners and stock brokers would feel if we stopped spending millions of our dollars on colored lights, blow-up Santas and gifts for our loved ones every year?

No, Fox News, I won’t be putting the Christ back into my Christmas. Ever. But if my family and friends will let me, I’ll continue to lug home pine trees from the local Christmas tree lot and obscure all but the scent of those trees with a heinous number of Christmas ornaments. I’ll hang the gorgeous, envy-inducing Christmas stockings my mother knitted for each member of my family. I’ll listen to the Christmas carols my grandmother used to play on the piano when I was a child. With my husband, daughter, parents, in-laws, siblings, nieces, nephews and friends always on my mind, I’ll wrap Christmas presents and watch Christmas movies and read Christmas books and bake Christmas cookies and attend Christmas parties. I’ll do it all.

And in doing so, I will indeed “protect the heart of Christmas.” It won’t be Palin’s exact version of Christmas, of course. But it will be Christmas just the same. And it will be great.


  1. eric says:

    My parents and sisters are getting together to celebrate christmas on Sunday the 22nd because my sister will be out of town on the 24th/25th. My mother suggested that we all go to her church and then to her house for brunch. My first thought was “oh Mom, why do you have to drag your religion into something nice like christmas.” Then it recognized that I probably don’t have too much of a leg to stand on with this one.

  2. Richard Wade says:

    People in the northern hemisphere have had some kind of important celebration on or near the Winter Solstice for many thousands of years, even before they knew the exact date of the longest night of the year. There’s a deep, primal, even evolutionary need to cheer up and support ourselves and each other at this time. It’s dark. It’s cold. There are many hazards. We need more food when there’s less available. Consistently, more people die during winter than the other seasons. Societies that had customs promoting mutual support in the toughest times tended to survive those toughest times.

    That long-developed primal need isn’t going to just disappear after only a few centuries of better food and shelter. The annual It’s-So-Fricking-Cold-And-Scary-Let’s-Huddle-Together-For-Warmth-Share-Food-And-Sing-Songs-For-Courage celebration is the most co-opted of all the holidays, adopted and adapted again and again by each successive culture which added their own “meaning” on top of its fundamental purpose. Secularization is just the latest edition, and probably not the last.

    Merry Christmas everybody, which for me means, “Stay warm, safe, and well fed, and see to it that others are too.”

  3. donnie says:

    “Secular Christian”….I like the sound of that. We need more secular christians and less evangelical christians in America. America would be better for it.

  4. jen says:

    great blog!

  5. Alan Magree says:

    Cheese and crackers, got all muddy!!!! The word means Christ’s Mass. How do you take the Christ out of that? I’ve got to know!

  6. Holly says:

    We celebrate Christmas and Chanukah (my husband is a lifelong Jewish atheist; I’m a born-again atheist), and neither holiday is less special because there’s no god in it. It’s always funny to see seriously religious people get upset about the secularization of Christmas when they, too, are putting up Christmas trees (a pagan symbol) and telling their kids about Santa.

  7. Chris says:

    Love this one, Wendy.

    Maybe the problem with Sarah Palin and like-minded folks is that, since evolution doesn’t exist to them, then Christmas can’t evolve, and thus it must be dying. :-)

    In The Magic of Reality, Dawkins proposes a thought experiment where one imagines taking a time machine back in time to visit ancestors in (if I recall correctly) 1000-year increments. For a while, you’d see no difference, they’d be able to interbreed, etc. But, eventually of course, your ancestor would look like a monkey, or a fish, etc.

    The same time machine would be helpful to show the evolution of Christmas. Someone[1] could take Sarah Palin back in time in, say, ten year increments and show how Christmas has changed over the years. It would be little things at first: No Elf on the Shelf (much to my daughter’s sadness, I’m sure!), no Mannheim Steamroller (much to my delight!), no Black Friday/Cyber Monday idiocy, no Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer, etc. Imagery of Santa would start looking different before long and some traditions would be different (I’m using as my source here–lots of interesting info!). In only 10 or 11 jumps, no Christmas stockings hung from the chimney and no Mrs. Claus. In 20 jumps, no Christmas trees in the USA. About 40 jumps (I think), no candy canes. I think it would be an absolutely fascinating journey, and eye-opening for sure. But, no doubt, Sarah Palin and the like would try to find ways to deny it (e.g. “none of those things you mentioned have anything to do with Jesus!” …well, yes, but they have everything to do with Christmas!).

    As for her book, I think I’ll wait for the audiobook version, narrated by Tina Fey.

    [1] Obviously that someone would have to be willing to put up with Sarah Palin for an extended period in an enclosed space. So, not me.

  8. James says:

    I personally don’t see the need to separate or decouple Christmas from Solstice. After all, Christmas is just repackaged solstice celebration, piggy backing on pagan and druid traditions like wreaths and decorating trees and whatnot. I like including some esoteric and older Christmas traditions such as Krampus and the Yule goat. I enjoy sharing with people the non-Christian history of many Christmas traditions.

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Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

      Natural Wonderers is my new blog published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of my previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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